Obama Lauded For Now, But Domestic Fights Loom

A man walks past a Plain Dealer newspaper box in Cleveland on Monday, the day after President Obama announced that a U.S military mission had ended the life of Osama bin Laden. i

A man walks past a Plain Dealer newspaper box in Cleveland on Monday, the day after President Obama announced that a U.S military mission had ended the life of Osama bin Laden. Tony Dejak/AP hide caption

toggle caption Tony Dejak/AP
A man walks past a Plain Dealer newspaper box in Cleveland on Monday, the day after President Obama announced that a U.S military mission had ended the life of Osama bin Laden.

A man walks past a Plain Dealer newspaper box in Cleveland on Monday, the day after President Obama announced that a U.S military mission had ended the life of Osama bin Laden.

Tony Dejak/AP

The risky military operation that killed Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a political turning point for President Obama — a moment that has silenced critics and given an increasingly sour electorate something to celebrate.

At least for now.

"It's a big psychological lift. We needed something good to happen," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers. "This is quite a tale, and proved we could still do something, that we are capable and powerful."

Says Rogers: "This is good for the president. And, in politics, good gets better."

Most Americans, after all, had given up hope that bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, would be killed or captured. Now, they are devouring each new detail of the last hours of the most-wanted terrorist's life.

But Obama may be well-advised not to bask too long in the glow of the successful operation, experts say.

Though he and military leaders have been reaping accolades for Sunday's singular accomplishment on foreign soil, the success is unlikely to help the president in the epic ideological struggles he faces back home, including how to tame the nation's spending and debt.

And rein in gas prices. And pay for entitlement programs. And defend his health care overhaul.

The bounce he'll most certainly get in the polls in coming days and weeks may enhance his domestic clout briefly. But poll analysts like Mark Blumenthal say that rally-round-the-flag upticks in approval are notoriously fleeting.

"Now, there is bipartisan praise, public relief and congratulations," Blumenthal said, all of which affect the poll numbers. And the nation is rapt celebrating bin Laden's demise and scrutinizing the reactions of Obama's would-be Republican challengers in the 2012 presidential race.

Rally Effects On Presidents

Several presidents in recent decades got a good bump in the polls from success overseas. But not all of it was long-lasting.

President George W. Bush. Gallup recorded the largest presidential "rally effect" in its polling history after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush went from a 51 percent approval rating the week before the attacks to an 86 percent rating the following week. Bush, though he experienced much smaller spikes after the Iraq invasion and Saddam Hussein's capture, saw his approval ratings sink through his tenure to historic lows when he left office.

President Gerald Ford. Ford's approval ratings, according to Gallup, jumped from 40 to 52 percent in May 1975 after U.S. Marines rescued the American merchant ship Mayaguez from the Khmer Rouge. It was considered the last battle of the Vietnam War. By late summer, Ford's approval rating had fallen back to the mid 40s.

President John F. Kennedy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962, Kennedy's approval ratings improved from 61 percent in October to 76 percent by December. But his ratings settled back down to 61 percent six months later.

Sources: Gallup; Poll Analyst Mark Blumenthal of the Huffington Post

"But these kinds of bounces," says Blumenthal, especially in the current, constantly reconstituting media world, "recede pretty quickly."

Foreign Vs. Domestic 'Halo'

Obama supporters like Faiz Shakir, vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress, have characterized the discovery and death of bin Laden as a vindication of the president's foreign policy strategy.

"This pushes back on Republican criticism that he is weak and indecisive," Shakir says. "This puts Republicans into a position where the narrative they wanted to craft about Obama's management style has been shown to be specious and illegitimate."

The bin Laden operation, he says, should help Americans feel a "comfort" with Obama's leadership and nudge forward his domestic agenda as happened with President Bush post-Sept. 11.

But the targeted death of bin Laden, though far more momentous than the 2003 capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is no Sept. 11. And the nation's current economic problems and partisan divides are deeper and uglier than a decade ago.

"There tends to be a dichotomy between foreign policy issues, where a president is seen as commander in chief, and domestic issues, where a president is seen as a politician on the make," says David King of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"In the short term, the president has a halo, and that glow will last for weeks or months around foreign policy," says King. "But because the House is controlled by the opposition party, it will probably have little effect on the crucial issues surrounding the budget."

The rally-around-the-flag bounce? It would only be enhanced, King says, if the country again feels under great threat from beyond its borders.

"And that's not anything anyone wants to happen for political advantage," he says.

Quoting Carville, Again

Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Richard Schwarm joined in what he described as the "tremendous good feeling" felt by many in the wake of the bin Laden news.

"Republicans and Democrats alike like to support their president when dealing with foreign affairs," he said Monday. "I would be surprised if any Republicans would have any criticisms of any act the president took on our behalf."

However, the differences on Capitol Hill, and between Obama and those Republicans looking to run against him in 2012, are "on economic issues," Schwarm says, "and that will not change."

"As James Carville stated, 'It's the economy, stupid,' " he said, quoting the former Clinton political operative. "For at least a few days, the tone of the discussion will probably be a little more publicly upbeat and optimistic, but I'm sure nothing has changed behind the scenes."

And both Schwarm and Harvard's King say that the bin Laden operation, while a feather in Obama's cap, is an event too early to have an effect on the field of Republican presidential candidates.

"The economy is where the Republicans candidates have been," King says.

Half-Life Short, Powerful

Politically and psychologically, the developments of the past 24 hours have been a "big net plus" for Obama, Rogers says, but the "half-life on this emotional high is unknown."

Domestically, the operation and Obama's comments about national unity, may encourage moderate Republicans, under fierce pressure from their right flank, to negotiate with the president, Shakir says.

Wishful thinking, perhaps.

But for at least a few days, and maybe weeks, the president can expect some goodwill from both sides of the aisle. However, it is unlikely to translate into sweeping bipartisan policy initiatives, such as a budget Congress can agree on.

The president's deliberations, and his decision to get at bin Laden in a way that he would either be captured or his remains identifiable, was "gutsy," Rogers says.

"There will be movies, books and documentaries made about this," he said. "It makes everybody quiet and look smaller right now."

"As [the late GOP strategist] Lee Atwater used to say: Never kick a man when he's up," Rogers said.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from