President Obama at the retirement ceremony for Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen (r) Sept. 30, 2011.
President Obama at the retirement ceremony for Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen (r) Sept. 30, 2011. Susan Walsh/AP
With the killing of terrorist spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, President Obama could and did claim yet another significant win Friday in the war against al Qaida.
But if the past is any indicator, Obama is unlikely to get much in the way of sustained political credit for his role in closing the al-Awlaki chapter of the al-Qaida story.
If Obama were going to derive any long-lasting political benefit from the U.S. killing of a terrorist leader, it would have most likely been from the successful U.S. military action against the world's most notorious terrorist and America's foremost enemy, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan in May.
But while Obama's approval ratings with Americans rose noticeably after that long-awaited event, the effect was only temporary. Immediately after bin Laden's death, Obama's approval rating rose to 52 percent but fell soon afterwards and now bumps along around 40 percent.
To the extent that the languishing economy overshadows most everything else at present, Obama's failure to get more credit can be partly ascribed to that.
Obama is also probably feeling the effects of voter perceptions that the Republican Party is stronger on national defense.
A new Gallup Poll result suggests that voters are still biased towards Republicans on national security, with respondents giving Republicans an 11 point edge on the question of which party does a better job protecting Americans from "international terrorism and military threats."
Obama may have contributed to this through both his policies and persona.
On the policy side, his unkept promise to close the Guantanamo prison facility and his Justice Department's plan, later thwarted by a lack of congressional and local support, to put terrorist suspects on trial in U.S. civilian courts in New York likely contributed to the sense among many Americans that his administration was softer than its predecessor in the terrorist fight.
Then there's Obama's personality. Of the many words that can used to describe him "belligerent" and "short-tempered" don't readily come to mind. "Cerebral" and "patient" are more like it.
Those qualities belie Obama's expansion of the number and range of drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere from the George W. Bush administration.
A tweet from Andrew Exum (@abumuquwama) at the Center for a New American Security captured the contradiction embedded in the reality of Obama's actions against terrorists versus the perception:
I don't know how President Obama manages to kill so many terrorists while traveling around the world apologizing for America. #multitasking