Democratic pollster Peter Hart said that beyond the issue of toughness, Obama on Sunday night was able to speak to the overall mood of a country that has been through tough times. That could help turn this event into a broader boost for his political standing.
“You looked at him last night [Sunday] and said this is somebody who had a steel backbone and a sense that he had a real understanding of the moment— no sense of celebration,” Hart said. “He caught what I thought was the tenor of the times — a country that has been down and that there is a way of coming back.”
Republicans and Democrats agreed, however, that economic issues would play a far more influential role in the next election than this episode. “I don’t think in any way, shape or form the election will be about this,” said Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008 was responsible for a pointed television commercial questioning Obama’s national security credentials.
He added: “But at issue has been his leadership, his engagement in some areas. He’s shown extremely strong leadership here in doing something I think the American public wanted done. . . If he can build some momentum and confidence around his leadership, starting here, I think this could be a point to look back upon and say, “Ah ha, that was the point he found surer footing.’”
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, called the killing of bin Laden a big victory for the president and the country. “But the country here is still hurting, with no jobs and gas prices and no hope when it comes to economic growth,” he said. “So while it’s a huge, huge victory and they all should be commended for how they executed it, he still has some serious domestic issues in front of him and they can’t be understated.”
The killing of bin Laden produced varying reactions from Obama’s prospective 2012 rivals. Some congratulated the president by name. Others were less effusive about Obama, and some did not even mention him — a mistake, according to some GOP strategists.
“I think you respond like an American and you praise the president and the troops and special forces for a job extremely well done,” said pollster Whit Ayres, who has signed on to work for former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr., who will soon decide whether to run in 2012.
“The best way for Republicans to deal with this is the gold watch strategy,” said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mr. President, that’s great. Now about the economy?’ ”
Obama and his advisers certainly know that. The president has achieved a victory that has been at the top of the national security priority list since Sept. 11. He will be judged in 2012 in part on that success—but only in part. Voters will want to see success at home before they make their final decision.