Behind the Numbers

The Bin Laden Bounce

Does killing bad guys really help at the ballot box?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

"For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country," said U.S. President Barack Obama at the top of his State of the Union speech last week. For good measure, he closed his hourlong speech on the same note, speaking of the flag given to him by the Navy SEALs who killed the al Qaeda mastermind. And at a retreat later in the week, Vice President Joe Biden recounted to House Democrats how Obama made the decision to invade bin Laden’s hiding place largely on his own, receiving little encouragement from his top advisors. A true presidential moment, we’re told.

Obama and his team clearly see eliminating bin Laden as a top administration achievement. It’s nearly conventional wisdom at this point that this refrain will be repeated throughout the forthcoming presidential campaign as a singular success. Who doesn’t like getting bad guys? But do Americans really reward at the ballot box presidents who take down their bogeymen?

The answer may be disappointing.

Less than a month before bin Laden was killed, Obama held a 47 percent job approval rating in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Immediately after the successful raid, it shot up to 56 percent. But only one month later, Obama’s approval was back at 47 percent again — and he fell as low as 42 percent in the next six months amid continuing economic troubles.

Simply put, no matter the patriotic fervor, there are other issues that matter much more to voters. Even on the issue of terrorism, Obama’s ratings have settled back to pre-bin Laden levels. They spiked to a remarkably high 69 percent immediately after the raid, but slipped to 60 percent the next month. Currently, 56 percent approve of Obama on terrorism, according to a January Washington Post-ABC poll, exactly where they were in February of last year. As we’ve noted before, his relatively strong reviews on terrorism haven’t buoyed ratings on foreign policy in general, nor those on his handling of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But perhaps we should have known this already. When it comes to presidents seeing diminished returns for catching the bad guy, there’s a good deal of precedent.

George W. Bush got a 4-point bounce when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. But only two months later, his job approval rating sank below where it was before Saddam’s roundup.

His father could have warned him. The elder Bush ended a long-running feud with Panama’s Gen. Manuel Noriega in early 1990 with a swift invasion and capture, rocketing his already high 66 percent job rating up to 79 percent in a Post-ABC poll. But it sunk back to 65 percent in July before rising the next month with the onset of the Gulf War (also considered a big success by Americans). Of course, Obama would kill for numbers like these now.

The point is that neither military feat kept voters from ousting Bush senior from the White House under the banner of "it’s the economy, stupid." Even though Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison just months before the 1992 election, voters didn’t go to the voting booth to reward his capture.

So, while Obama shouldn’t expect voters to reelect him for taking out bin Laden, there is a reason he won a rousing standing ovation from the joint session of Congress last Tuesday, Jan. 24: Many Americans think of it as his best accomplishment. In a Washington Post-ABC poll last June, finding and killing bin Laden was the No. 1 action Obama did "especially well" as president, some four times the proportion naming any other single accomplishment.

It also may have had a real effect on how safe Americans feel from terrorism. Fully 64 percent of Americans in a September Washington Post-ABC poll said their country was safer from terrorism than before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, up 16 points from 2010 and near the highest on record.

But Americans don’t necessarily punish a president for failing to track down an archnemesis. Running against Bush in 2004, Sen. John Kerry said he "would have made Osama bin Laden the priority" rather than focusing on Iraq. The complaint may have fallen on deaf ears. Nearly six in 10 Americans approved Bush’s handling of terrorism in a September 2004 Washington Post-ABC poll, and he led Kerry by more than 20 points when it came to whether the public trusted him to handle the issue.

The harsh reality of taking down bogeymen is that once they’ve been removed from action, Americans may turn to judge the president on other issues. As with Bush in 1992, Obama’s 2012 fate hinges on how voters think he’s handling the economy, not his vanquishing of America’s most despised enemy.

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