This graphic tells a simple story. In the months leading up to bin Laden’s death in early May 2011, Obama’s approval rating was hovering in the mid-to-high 40 percent range. As news of bin Laden’s death broke, Obama’s approval rating jumped into the 50s, stayed there for about a month and then returned to normal as the story faded from public consciousness. Bin Laden’s death was a net positive for Obama in the long run, in that it gave him a big foreign policy achievement to point to in his upcoming reelection campaign. But the bounce didn’t last.
It’s hard to know whether Baghdadi’s death will push Trump’s poll numbers up. Bin Laden was probably more well-known to Americans than Baghdadi — he received much more media coverage over the years — and persuadable voters might get distracted by the next news cycle before they can Google “Who is Baghdadi?”
But even if Trump gets a boost from Baghdadi’s death, it is unlikely to last. After a few days or weeks, the news cycle will move on and other ongoing stories, such as impeachment and the Democratic primary, will crowd out Baghdadi. Trump himself may even accelerate this process. He tends to get distracted, wander off message and create controversies out of thin air when he could just be sitting back and soaking up positive press for the strong state of the economy, the deaths of prominent terrorists or other positive (or at least spinnable) developments. Trump can’t use Baghdadi to persuade voters if he’s already moved on to some new controversy.
Some voters may price Trump’s record on the Islamic State into their overall estimation of his competency, but this won’t be a game changer for him. After the dust settles, he’ll still be stuck with his same set of problems — including, and most importantly, himself.