The political/electoral impact of killing bin Laden

THE POLITICAL/ELECTORAL IMPACT OF KILLING BIN LADEN…. U.S. forces killing Osama bin Laden is clearly a national security victory, but under the circumstances, it’s also a victory for President Obama. Given that his re-election bid is next year, it’s not unreasonable to consider the developments in the context of the president’s standing — which may soon improve.

Opinions, not surprisingly, differ. Mark Halperin, not exactly a Democratic ally, calls the news a “triumph for Obama,” adding, “[T]his is a great day for Obama’s re-election effort.” Jonathan Chait, meanwhile, believes the political ramifications will be “minimal to nonexistent.” Kevin Drum is also skeptical about the effect.

Nate Silver is closer to Halperin, arguing, “[T]his is good news for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. I can’t imagine a single, atomized piece of news, foreign or domestic, that would be better for the President.”

Although the Republican candidates had not seemed especially interested in making an issue out of national security — perhaps because Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has been fairly hawkish and not clearly differentiated from theirs — it at the very least neuters the issue for them. It presumably will become a significant talking point for the President — the sort of thing that swing voters will be reminded of in a commercial on the eve of the 2012 elections.

The news will also, almost certainly, trigger a significant improvement in Mr. Obama’s approval rating.

The sense in which I’d urge caution is that the former is not equal to the latter. Yes, this is going to help Mr. Obama — to some degree or another — in November 2012. And yes, it’s also going to make Mr. Obama look much more formidable in the near-term.

But I’m not sure that the magnitude of the bump that Mr. Obama might get in the Gallup tracking poll is going to be especially predictive of how much the residue of this news might produce for him 19 months from now.

Right. It’s called a “bounce” for a reason — the president seems likely to see his standing improve almost immediately, but the bump in the polls seems likely to subside soon after. Making assumptions and predictions from this is generally a bad idea, especially if the election is not primarily about national security. In other words, will the OBL news set Obama’s popularity on a new, semi-permanent trajectory? Probably not.

The common comparison today is to George H.W. Bush riding high in 1991 after the first Gulf War, only to see his fortunes falter badly a year later. I’m not sure I buy the comparison — Obama’s a better candidate than Bush, and if there’s a Bill Clinton in the GOP field, he or she is hiding well — but the point about unpredictable reversals is worth remembering.

But if we’re laying odds on the president’s re-election, the bin Laden news, I’d argue, bumps the likelihood up, at least a little. What I’m imagining is Obama and his supporters offering voters a list of accomplishments from his first term, and it’s going to be a doozy: ended the Great Recession, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, net neutrality, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden, too.

Is that a winning message? I’ve heard worse.