Forget all the political commentary over the last three weeks: the fact is the killing of Osama bin Laden helped Obama.
Not as much as the White House would like, nor as little as Republicans would like to think. Meanwhile, the economy is stuck still in neutral, leaving voters in funk. All of which translates into the following: while President Obama is in a better place politically than he was 30 days ago he is far from a sure bet to be re-elected in 2012.
The president’s bold gamble to take out bin Laden was a massive success and a very good thing for this country. The political impact was important but not for the reasons you might think. Our sense is that the poll bump from the bin laden killing was going to be single digits and short term and it has been borne out so far.
These types of events almost never lead to lasting gains in the headline approval rating. However, they can contribute to a more substantive shift in opinion. So while Gallup and others have shown the president’s approval rating returning to pre-bin Laden levels, the data suggests that there has been a meaningful drop in Obama’s disapproval rating. This is important because it means that some swing voters (independents and soft partisans) are reconsidering the president.
More importantly, the bin Laden decision and take down suggest to voters that Obama is a decisive leader and this was an area of great weakness for the president. In March, a Gallup poll found that only 52% of voters thought Obama was a strong and decisive leader. This was down 10 points in the last year and more than 20 points since he took office.
There is a segment of independent and soft Republican male voters who have long felt that Obama is not a decisive, strong leader; they see his intelligence and often professorial demeanor as being unsuited for the presidency. By taking out America’s public enemy number one in a raid on foreign soil, Obama has provided a clear instance of bold leadership that undercuts that criticism. In politics winning is often about sending clear “signals” and this is as good as it gets on that front.
So, yes, the president got a bump and, yes, it was short lived. We suspect that in the end, the impact will be approximately a 3-5 percent bump in approval and corresponding drop in disapproval that puts him somewhere around 50-51 percent approval rating and 43-45 percent disapproval. In addition, perceptions of the president’s handling of foreign policy and Afghanistan have gone up considerably. All in all, a good few weeks for the president.