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The Obama bump: Why “how long” matters more than “how high”

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President Obama announces the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

No one who follows politics even casually doubts that President Obama’s job approval ratings will improve in the wake of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden on Sunday.

But, focusing on what could be job approval numbers in the 60s in the first set of post-bin Laden data is a mistake when attempting to determine the long-term political implications of the incident.

Past history tells us that how high a President’s job approval number goes in the immediate aftermath of a major international event is far less important than how long his numbers can sustain at — or near — that level.

Data gathered by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, on the “how high” and ”how long” questions in past episodes like this one is instructive.

Looking at 13 historical episodes ranging from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the folks at POS found that the average presidential bump was 13 percentage points and it took an average of 22 weeks (or five months) for the president’s numbers to return to their pre-incident levels.

The longest sustained bump? 105 weeks for President George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The shortest? Four weeks for President Ronald Reagan after his first summit with Russian President Mikhael Gorbachev.

(Sidenote: Bush also had the largest job approval bump — up 35 points from polling done prior to Sept. 11, 2001.)

There are a several factors that suggest the length of Obama’s bump may be more truncated than those of some of his predecessors.

First, unlike almost every other episode on the list above, the death of bin Laden is good not bad news. And good news tends to be more quickly forgotten. (Remember Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

An event like September 11 seared itself on our collective consciousness and fundamentally altered how we thought about ourselves and the world we live in.

While bin Laden’s death will serve as a symbolic bookend to what happened nearly ten years ago, it is unlikely to have the same deep cultural impact that the terrorist attacks did.

Second, the media landscape has changed drastically even since Sept. 11, 2001. The rise of Twitter, which was the news source for information about bin Laden’s death, as well as Facebook and other social media outlets has (further) shortened the American attention span and left us forever looking for the next big thing.

We, as a country, move on VERY quickly these days. And what seems like earth-shattering news today could feel old within a week or a month.

Third, there are issues lurking on the horizon — most notably the debt limit — that seem certain to quickly bring an end to the nonpartisan fever that Washington has caught over the last 48 hours.

As Roll Call columnist — and Fix friend — Stu Rothenberg writes today:

“While the ‘sense of national unity’ that the president referred to in his Sunday night statement may resurface again for a few days, there is little national unity about whether to raise the debt ceiling, to raise taxes on people earning over $250,000 a year or to curtail entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security for younger Americans. These questions, as well as unemployment, are likely to have a much bigger impact on the next election.”

There will be scads of polling data released over the next few days as media organizations seek to quantify what the killing of bin Laden means to the country and its politics.

Be wary of reading too much into those numbers. If President Obama can keep his job approval ratings at 60 — or even in the mid-to-high 50s — for the next three to six months, then that’s something worth analyzing for political meaning. But, a quick bump, no matter how high it goes, is ultimately not terrible telling in terms of what will happen in 2012.

And, always remember that it’s still 553 days — or 18 months, roughly — between today and the November 2012 election. That’s a very long time.

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