Behind the Numbers

The OBL Blowback

Is Obama's chest thumping a turnoff?

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Republicans are crying foul over a new campaign ad from President Barack Obama taking credit for dispatching Osama bin Laden one year ago — and for marking the occasion with a stealthy journey to Afghanistan yesterday to mark the occasion. George W. Bush, of course, was the subject of similar criticism (though from Democrats) after his 2004 campaign ads featured flashbacks to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At that time, most Americans thought such tactics were inappropriate. But just like the latest round of commentary, it all depends on who’s the hero.

The new web ad released Friday actually begins with a direct reference to Obama’s predecessor. “That’s one thing that Bush said was right, ‘the president is the decider in chief,'” says former President Bill Clinton, assessing later in the video that Obama made a difficult decision in authorizing the bin Laden raid — “the harder and the more honorable path.”

The ad then ominously asks “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” followed by references to Romney’s 2007 and 2008 attacks on Obama for being too willing to invade Pakistan and focusing too much on Osama bin Laden.

Polls have yet to gauge whether Americans think the ad is below the belt, but Bush’s experience eight years ago provides some clues.

In spring 2004, Bush’s campaign unveiled ads showing glimpses of a destroyed World Trade Center tower and firemen carrying a flag-draped casket on September 11, highlighting the day as one of the great challenges facing the nation. The videos didn’t mention John Kerry explicitly, but the message was clear: President Bush, steady leadership in times of change.

Blowback was immediate from some, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, who had already endorsed Sen. John Kerry. Bush’s campaign stood by the ads, and strategist Karen Hughes said “I believe the vast majority of the American people will as well.”

Suffice to say, she was wrong. In a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll immediately after the ad’s release, two thirds of Americans (66 percent) said it was inappropriate for political candidates to run campaign ads using images from September 11, while only 30 percent thought this was appropriate. Support was 12 points higher when Bush was named in the survey question. (The poll randomly assigned half of respondents to have Bush explicitly named in the question, a clever pollster technique designed to measure the impact of question wording).

In this case, the rules of campaign etiquette were highly tinted by partisanship. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats — who overwhelmingly disapproved of Bush at the time — thought using 9/11 imagery was inappropriate. But just four in 10 Republicans thought the tactic was out of bounds. Independents split the difference, saying by a 67 to 27 percent margin that the images were inappropriate.

Despite the controversy, it’s not clear whether Bush paid any political price for the apparent overstep. He won re-election in the fall, and national security proved a potent line of attack against Kerry later in the campaign. Bush held a 17-point advantage over Kerry on who was trusted more to handle the campaign against terrorism in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2004.

The same may be true of Obama, who holds some of his strongest job performance ratings on handling terrorism. Whether voters see his bin Laden boasts as tasteless may chiefly reflect how they rate Obama in the first place, not the other way around.

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