Any hopes that the raid would lead to a new birth of affection for the continuously unpopular president, though, were dashed when he arrived at the World Series game in D.C. later that evening. After Trump was introduced to the crowd, the response was a chorus of boos.
That’s hardly scientific, of course. The disapproval was from a crowd in predominantly Democratic D.C. that was already irritated at the score of an important game. But those hoping for a significant shift in views of Trump after the action against Baghdadi might nonetheless want to scale their expectations downward.
1. Barack Obama saw only a brief bump after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
We have a recent moment that seems as though it should provide some useful guidance on this question: the 2011 raid that resulted in the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama’s approval rating rose seven points over the course of a week, driven in part by an 11-point jump among Republicans.
But it was short-lived, a brief shift in a steady downward trend. Within two months, Obama’s approval overall and with every partisan group was back where it had been before bin Laden’s death — or lower.
2. Baghdadi was probably less well-known than bin Laden.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Trump contrasted Baghdadi with bin Laden directly.
“Osama bin Laden was very big,” Trump said, “but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center.” By contrast, Baghdadi was “a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, ‘a country,’ a caliphate, and was trying to do it again.”
It’s unsurprising that Trump would amplify the importance of the terrorist neutralized on his watch relative to the one targeted by Obama. But it’s likely that most Americans are far more familiar with bin Laden than with Baghdadi. There doesn’t appear to be polling on this point, in part because a search of the Roper Center’s database of polls doesn’t include any that mention Baghdadi’s name. (There are more than 500 polls that mention bin Laden.)
A look at Google search interest over the past year shows that bin Laden regularly accrued far more queries than did Baghdadi, although the Islamic State was generally (though not always) more searched than the dead al-Qaeda leader.
3. The fate of the Islamic State is unclear.
By the time of bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda had largely faded as a perceived threat in the eyes of Americans. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were 10 years in the past and, while the terrorist group continued to target Americans in the Middle East, it had failed to strike in Europe and the United States for several years. Bin Laden’s death was more symbolic, offering closure to the 9/11 attacks, than operationally debilitating.
The fate of the Islamic State is more uncertain. The distributed nature of the organization has meant more sporadic attacks over time, including ones in Canada and France last year. Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to move into northeastern Syria has raised concerns about imprisoned Islamic State fighters being released; some already have been. The caliphate has been eradicated, but fighters remain in the region.
The organization’s reach has been weakened by the hobbling of its communications arm. Baghdadi’s death may similarly decrease its ability to entice new adherents who might pose a direct threat to the United States. This uncertainty about the group’s abilities serves as a reminder that the Islamic State might still have the resources to strike in the United States — which would certainly shift perceptions of Baghdadi’s death.
4. Trump’s news conference may not have helped.
After bin Laden’s death, Obama gave a brief statement and didn’t take questions. Trump, on the other hand, engaged in an extended back-and-forth, during which he introduced all sorts of claims and details that both raised questions and inspired additional reporting.
What could have been a simple announcement — this terrorist is now dead — became something more sprawling. Trump gave people a lot to think and to talk about when, in this case, having them focus on Baghdadi’s death might have been the most politically useful approach.
5. Almost nothing has changed polling for Trump anyway.
The most practical reason to think that Trump may not see a sustained polling bump from the Baghdadi death is that, despite all of the remarkable events that have occurred during his presidency, his approval rating has remained remarkably consistent. Republicans love Trump, Democrats dislike him, and independents are skeptical. This new event seems unlikely to shift that calculus.
It’s worth noting that polling suggests terrorism is generally a bigger concern for Republicans than for Democrats. Meaning that the death of a prominent terrorist seems like it would be more likely to prompt a boost with Republicans — the group with which Trump is already doing the best.
We have certainly been surprised before on how the public reacts to news events, of course. But the idea that Trump will not suddenly become broadly popular thanks to this raid seems like a safe bet — World Series reaction aside.