Will Osama bin Laden’s death make 2012 like 1992?

Matt Mackowiak Founder, Potomac Strategy Group
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In Washington, it’s never too soon to consider the political impact of world events.

Now that we are barely 24 hours past when President Barack Obama announced the killing of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, at a hastily arranged, highly unusual Sunday night presidential address from the East Room of the White House, we can begin to assess the political impact of this development.

National security issues are unlike other policy issues. Most Americans view them in non-partisan ways, and simply want a presidential candidate to appear serious, thoughtful and tough on terrorism. Ultimately, it’s a threshold question.

But the 2012 election would not be the first that Osama bin Laden has impacted.

Democratic officials still believe that a video tape released by bin Laden on October 29, 2004, only days before Election Day, focused the public’s attention on terrorism and national security and helped provide President Bush with his narrow reelection victory.

There are likely short-term and long-term impacts from President Obama’s announcement.

First, President Obama will surely see a spike in his approval rating, which as of late last week was 46-46 in the Gallup poll. According to Republican pollster Glen Bolger, the average bump in approval rating for presidents in response to major national security events is 13 points for an average of 22 weeks. My gut tells me he is likely to be in the high 50s or low 60s two weeks from now. His approval rating for personal qualities (“strong leader”) is likely to rise, as is the public view of him as “commander-in-chief.”

On national security specifically, President Obama’s success with this mission will likely buy him additional time to pursue his surge strategy in Afghanistan before this summer’s arbitrary timeline to begin withdrawal.

However, the existence of the $1 million fortified mansion 50 kilometers from Islamabad in a city of 90,000 people will raise very serious questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts, as Obama’s top terrorism advisor, John Brennan, admitted Monday. The fact that the president approved a high-risk, unilateral, covert military operation inside Pakistan, without that country’s knowledge and consent, will only further strain our complicated bilateral relationship with Pakistan, especially with its intelligence service, the ISI.

Second, national security issues will be seen in less partisan terms and be used in less partisan ways in the intermediate future. President Obama and his national security team have now unquestionably earned the right for Congress to trust his judgment on terrorism matters — at least in the short term.

Third, we are 19 months away from the 2012 election. It is unlikely that an event occurring on May 1, 2011 will provide the difference in whether the president wins reelection or not. Most independent voters do not begin to pay attention to the two major party candidates until Labor Day in the election year.

Fourth, this development will require that Republican candidates meet a national security threshold to be seriously considered. While governors and members of the House and Senate do not control militaries, they do play a role in national security policy and visit with foreign leaders. Any Republican who wants to run for president in the new post-bin Laden political environment will have to demonstrate their seriousness and preparedness for the job. Those who trip up will disqualify themselves.

Apart from these impacts, President Obama still has significant political problems.

While the killing of bin Laden is clearly a net positive, the election is far more likely to turn on how he addresses historically high unemployment, uncontrolled spending, record deficits and debt, unsustainable federal entitlement programs, high gas prices, the still-to-come Supreme Court ruling on the federal health care law and public fears about inflation.

Let us not forget that President George H.W. Bush appeared to be unbeatable after liberating Kuwait with Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He had sky-high approval ratings and scared off potentially tough general election opponents, like then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY). Ultimately, he broke his pledge not to raise taxes, and a little-known Southern governor named Bill Clinton defeated President Bush.

The election of 2012 has a very possible parallel to 1992.

This week’s news was good for the country and the world. It was also welcome political news for President Obama. While he will likely see higher poll numbers over the next two months, I suspect by June or July he will be back below 50 percent as the debt limit debate takes hold and gas prices head from above $4 per gallon to $5, breaking American records.

The 2012 election will be decided on the economy, not on national security. President Obama’s deft handling of this military operation has removed the issue from the political discussion.

Matt Mackowiak is the founder of Potomac Strategy Group and has been an adviser to two U.S. Senators, a Governor and two winning campaigns. He can be reached at matt@potomacstrategygroup.com.