After the attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings increased significantly. On September 10, he was polling at a respectable 51 percent. Four days after the attack, his approval rate was at 85 percent. A week after that, Bush had the highest presidential approval rating ever recorded at 90 percent.
The dramatic increase in ratings resulted from a political phenomenon known as the “rally around the flag syndrome.” In times of national crises, the president, almost without exception, sees a bump in his approval rating.
Although 9/11 is in no way comparable to what happened in Tucson, Ariz., last Saturday, President Obama, pollsters say, will experience a similar bump in his approval rating, though at a much smaller and less significant scale.
“These kinds of presidential moments almost always add at least a few points to a president’s job approval rating,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told The Daily Caller. “But we also know the change is fleeting.”
Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report told TheDC that he thinks chances are good that the president’s numbers will continue to creep up for awhile. “This is time when the country wants to come together and wants a collective sense of community,” he said. “I think he [Obama] has the opportunity to serve as the person the country rallies around.”
Rothenberg added one caveat, however.
“I’m a little skeptical this is a fundamental turning point in American politics. Everybody is still stunned by the attack and politics is put on the back burner,” he said. “There’s a pause here, so this is a time when a presidential speech really matters.”
According to the Rasmussen daily presidential tracking poll, Obama’s approval rating stood at 49 percent on Thursday, with 50 percent disapproving. But the good news for Obama came with the number of voters who strongly disapprove. Thursday, that number was at 36 percent, the lowest level of strong disapproval in more than 15 months.
For most of 2010, that number hovered around 40 percent.
After the Tucson shooting, several commentators drew parallels between Obama and President Clinton’s handling of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. “One of the things I learned from Oklahoma City is not to rush to judgment,” said top Clinton adviser Paul Begala. “If the president uses this tragedy to challenge us all to move to higher ground, it would be a welcome message.”
Longtime Democratic pollster Mark Penn also appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” and said Saturday’s tragedy gives Obama a chance to reconnect with the American people, much like President Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing. “President Clinton reconnected with Oklahoma,” said Penn. “And the president right now, he seems removed. And it wasn’t until that speech that he [Clinton] really clicked with the American people.”
But according to Sabato, while Clinton’s approval rating did go up after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Tucson tragedy is not an equivalent event, much less another 9/11. “A misinterpretation of history has developed about Bill Clinton and the Oklahoma City speech in 1995,” he told TheDC. “That speech didn’t reelect him.”
Similarly, according to Rothenberg, Obama’s speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson tragedy on Wednesday won’t have a long-lasting impact on his reelection odds. “This wasn’t a political speech and this is not a political moment,” said Rothenberg. “The moment is where the country feels collective pain and we rally around him.”
“When we get back to politics, to issues, to fighting over healthcare, the debt, spending, national security, we’ll get back to a more typical environment,” he added.
Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports told TheDC it is important to keep the Arizona tragedy in context, noting that Obama’s numbers have been creeping up recently, and while it is possible he will receive an extra bump in the aftermath of the shooting, it will be “relatively modest.”
Rasmussen also said that, typically, such a bump lasts only about a week.
“For all of 2010, his overall approval ratings remained essentially unchanged through the Scott Brown upset, the passage of health care, the Gulf Oil spill, and the November elections,” he said. “It is somewhat more likely that there will be a change in the level of enthusiasm.”
Past examples commonly associated with the rally around the flag syndrome include John Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jimmy Carter in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Hostage crisis, and George H.W. Bush after Desert Storm.