When the news broke last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed in an American special forces raid, some of the instant reaction on twitter and elsewhere was that President Obama just won his 2012 reelection contest. While we are almost assured to see a spike in Obama’s job approval numbers, the actual direct affect of this one event on an election a full 18 months from now should be modest.
After all, President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings went sky high after the first Gulf War, but that still didn’t stop him from losing his re-election thanks to a weak economy. The state of the economy is still almost always the decider of elections.
Recent polling makes the point well. As much as people wanted bin Laden captured or killed, the most recent NYT/CBS News poll found that only four percent of Americans ranked the wars as the most important problem facing the country right now, and “terrorism” didn’t even register. The reality is that, on a day-to-day level, Osama wasn’t affecting most Americans’ lives the way the pressing issue of unemployment is. That is why jobs and the economy are still by far the top issues with Americans.
This isn’t to say it will have no positive political influence on Obama’s re-election.
Killing bin Laden is an accomplishment Obama can point to. It should make it harder for Republicans to attack his foreign policy credibility, or at least give Obama a good snappy comeback to any such attack.
But, more importantly, will be how this killing influences other decisions that will affect 2012.
I think how the moment moves coming events will have a bigger political impact than this “victory” for Obama. It is possible the spike in Obama’s approval numbers could convince some possible Republican hopefuls, like Mike Huckabee, to choose not to enter the Republican primary. Similarly, Obama’s appearance of electoral strength due to increased popularity could make some GOP donors more reluctant to give at this time, hitting primary candidates with lower name recognition, like Tim Pawlenty.
If Obama wants it to, this moment could be used as a great justification to push for a shift in American foreign policy. In theory, this would be a good time to push for quickly ending the unpopular war in Afghanistan or reducing the deficit by ending old-fashioned military spending not suited for modern conflicts.
This spike in approval could also, just in general, improve Obama’s hand in negotiations with House Republicans, resulting in better deals.
While helpful in no way did this one moment win Obama his re-election.
Electorates tend to have short memories. In the next 18 months, I can assure you more important pressing issues, likely economic, will come to dominate voters’ decision-making process. But this does perhaps provide Obama an opening and a useful burst of political capital. If he uses that wisely, this could be an important pivot point to build upon to get actual changes that would really have meaning for 2012.