Washington woke up to a changed political landscape this morning as the news of the death of Osama bin Laden began to seep into the national consciousness. That much political strategists and partisans on both sides of the aisle agree.
But, what exactly has changed and for how long is a matter of considerable debate within political circles in Washington — and even within the Republican party.
“[George W.] Bush may have started the push, but Obama got Osama,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist. “And that will have an obvious huge political payoff.”
Not so, said Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant. “We have put a period at the end of a very long sentence and we move on to the next one — the economy, which is not a good story for President Obama,”he said.
To properly assess — or begin assessing — what the capture and killing of bin Laden means for politics, it’s necessary to separate out the short term prognosis from the long term impact.
So, let’s do that.
In the near term, it’s a virtual certainty that Obama will be elevated politically in much the same way George W. Bush was in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bill Clinton was following the Oklahoma City bombing and George H.W. Bush was during and immediately after the first Gulf War.
That’s especially true for this moment since, unlike the others mentioned above, it is good rather than bad news for the country.
“The short term gain is that it really validates his stature and approach,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
Added Mike DuHaime, a Republican operative who managed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign: “The President will rightfully be rewarded in terms of public opinions for the killing of bin Laden on his watch.”
How big a bump Obama will receive is tougher to predict although a look back at similar situations — with the acknowledgment that there is no apples to apples comparison — suggests it will be considerable.
Take George W. Bush for example. In a Gallup poll on Sept. 10, 2001, 51 percent of people approved of the job he was doing. Less than a week later he was at 86 percent job approval in the same poll. It wasn’t until January 2003 that Bush’s approval number dropped below 60 percent — a full 16 months later.
In the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, which was conducted from April 28-30, 46 percent of people approved of the job Obama was doing and an equal 46 percent disapproved.
Another short-term impact of bin Laden’s death is the likely quick confirmation of Leon Panetta, the current head of the Central Intelligence Agency, as Secretary of Defense.
“This means that Republicans will look even smaller or more petty if they try to block Leon Panetta’s confirmation as secretary of defense — which I am sure they otherwise would have been inclined to do,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
The longer term implications of what happened Sunday evening is a tougher nut to crack.
There are already those who are predicting an easy Obama re-election victory in November 2012, believing that the good feelings toward the President engendered by this moment won’t recede for months if at all.
Others counter that making predictions about what will happen politically in 17 months time is a fool’s errand, noting that the George H.W. Bush’s sky-high poll numbers in the aftermath of the Gulf War were a false indicator of his electoral prospects in the 1992 election.
“This will be a short term political plus for the President but long term it is a minus,” said Castellanos. “Alex’s Law: Nothing is more dangerous in politics than success.”
Finding quantitative measures to test Castellanos’ theory will be difficult, however
As we noted above, Obama’s approval numbers will almost certainly soar. And, he’s also likely to benefit on questions about his ability to be a strong leader; in an April Washington Post/ABC News poll, 40 percent of respondents said Obama was taking a stronger leadership role in Washington while 45 percent chose Republicans in Congress.
“The most important attribute for any president is to be viewed as a strong leader,” McKinnon, the GOP strategist, said. “Obviously this event will shore up Obama’s commander-in-chief credentials which will help him politically.”
Another way to judge the longer-term impact of bin Laden’s death on the political world is to watch whether the public’s attitudes about which party is better equipped to handle national security issues changes in a statistically meaningful — and sustained — way.
Polling over the last decade has shown a large Republican advantage on which side is better equipped to handle terrorism shrink during the 2006 and 2008 elections.
In exit polling from the 2010 midterms, nine percent of voters said the “recent terrorism attempt” — the bombs intercepted in packages in the waning days of October — was the most important issue in the election; of that group 55 percent voted for Democrats while 43 percent sided with Republicans.
And, in a January 2011 Post/ABC survey, 45 percent said they trusted Obama more to deal with terrorism while 39 percent said they trusted Republicans in Congress more.
“He obviously will be careful never to politicize any of this but he doesn’t have to,” Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist, said of Obama. “Any attempt by his political opponents to attack him as weak on security is now laughable.”
It’s beyond debate that the killing of Osama bin Laden marks a major moment in our country — and our country’s politics. In the near-term, the news will accrue to President Obama’s benefit. Whether it will fundamentally alter the long-term political calculus for the two parties heading into the 2012 presidential election remains to be seen.