I take it as a given that President Obama’s popularity will get a boost from the killing of Osama bin Laden. Polls so far are all over the lot; some show a significant bounce, while Scott Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll of likely voters shows no improvement at all. Rasmussen’s poll is a three-day running average, so two-thirds of the interviews for today’s survey were conducted after the raid was announced:
Others have argued that the benefit to Obama will be transitory, and will essentially be forgotten by November 2012. As many have pointed out, the first President Bush’s approval rating was sky-high at about the same point in his re-election cycle (March 1991) as a result of the Gulf War, but that effect was long gone by November 1992.
It is true that the election is a long way off, but I think some permanent benefit will accrue to President Obama as a result of the successful operation. Whether deserved or not, presidents get credit when things go well and blame when things go badly. Many voters have had doubts about Obama’s national security credentials, and the fact that the bin Laden operation was a success will, for some, tend to allay those doubts. So whether a “bounce” persists in the polls or not, I think Obama’s stature has been permanently enhanced by getting rid of bin Laden. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that any such benefit will outweigh voters’ wrath if by November 2012 they are looking back on nearly four years of a lousy economy.)
There is one caveat to this conclusion: if the administration continues to stumble in its handling of the aftermath of the raid, more voters may come to disassociate the nearly-perfect planning and execution of the mission itself by intelligence and military professionals from the bungling that has gone on at the White House. As Stephen Green put it:
The plan for killing Osama Bin Laden was perfectly conceived and as perfectly executed as any special forces operation since Israel’s raid on Entebbe. But the follow-through has been strange at best, sometimes bordering on incompetence.
The most recent stumble is the White House’s indecision over whether to release a photo of the dead bin Laden. Leon Panetta said, “I don’t think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public.” But that view was controversial within the administration, and today President Obama reversed course, telling CBS that no photo will be made public. I think that is the right decision–there is no need for us to “prove” to Muslim skeptics that Obama is dead; if someone seriously thinks Osama is still alive, he can wait patiently for a post-raid video–but why the administration couldn’t foresee such a basic issue and formulate a policy in advance is inexplicable.
That said, it would take a great deal of ineptitude to take the tarnish off what pretty much every voter regards as a signal achievement: Osama bin Laden is dead.