What Osama’s death means for Obama’s reelection prospects

Amanda Carey Contributor
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With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the harsh criticism leveled against President Obama’s recent foreign policy decisions quickly turned into lavish praise over what is viewed as America’s greatest military success in some time. Almost immediately after the news broke Sunday night, even the president’s most ardent opponents — including prospective 2012 Republican challengers – put aside the vitriol to commend the president on a job well done.

One such potential candidate — former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, an ardent Obama critic if there ever was one– called it a “tremendous accomplishment” and a “major milestone.” It is, he told The Daily Caller, “very important for America to demonstrate that no one attacks us with impunity.”

But as the immediate celebration slowly begins to fade and campaign season inches closer and closer, it’s hard to speculate just to what extent the killing of bin Laden will help in President Obama’s re-election quest. Presidential elections are typically determined by economic numbers, but killing the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks seems hardly insignificant.

While there is little agreement on how bin Laden’s death impacts 2012, observers from all sides are careful not to over-analyze.

“We are so far from election 2012 that only a fool would make predictions,” Democratic political consultant Paul Begala told The Daily Caller. “But over time the best policy is the best politics. And there’s no doubt that Bush followed bad policy in taking his eye off bin Laden.”

“By contrast,” added Begala, “President Obama kept his word and killed bin Laden. God bless him for doing so.”

Most who downplay the importance of killing bin Laden to Obama’s bid for re-election point to history.

Political consultant Phillip Stutts, for example, noted to TheDC that both former Bush presidents did not receive much help (if any) from their military victories in the voting booth.

“I think that Democrats that can, a year and a half out, claim this is the issue that could win them the race are sorely mistaken by not studying history,” said Stutts.

In 1991, a Times/CBS News poll was conducted toward the end of Operation Desert Storm. At that point, President George H.W. Bush had an 88 percent approval rating. Nonetheless, he went on to soundly lose to Bill Clinton the following year.

After Saddam Hussein was caught in 2003, President George W. Bush saw a spike in his approval rating, but only went on to win reelection in 2004 with 50.7 percent of the vote. In other words, Democrats cannot expect the killing of bin Laden to translate into an easy 2012 victory.

“We said the same thing in 2003 when Bush said ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Stutts told TheDC. “And we all went crazy and said it would be a breeze of a reelection, and we learned it wasn’t.”

“A lot of things will happen in next year and a half,” Stutts added, “and if they believe this will be deciding issue, they’re incredibly naïve.”

However, according to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center or Politics, the killing of bin Laden will likely help Obama neutralize the Democrats’ traditional perceived weakness on national security issues.

“Any charge about defense or national security is likely to elicit a one-name answer: Bin Laden,” said Sabato. “And that is likely going to be enough to neutralize any attack on defense and national security grounds.”

It will be a “We did what you couldn’t in seven years” Democratic message, he said. And that, added Sabato, will be hard for Republicans to counter – even more than a year down the road.

“It pumps up Democrats…while satisfying swing independent voters,” he said. “Republican voters won’t be swayed by Obama’s answer, but then they are already firmly in the opposition camp.”

But the extent to which Obama’s foreign policy moves will distract from the economy remains to be seen. It was reported Friday that economic growth for the first quarter of 2011 was significantly slower than expected. Republicans can be counted on to focus on all things economy-related moving forward.