Will Obama get a bin Laden boost?

Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama headshot
Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama headshot

Updated 1:24 p.m. Eastern Time

There's little question that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a significant political victory for President Obama, who will likely get a boost from the same sort of "rally around the flag" effect that benefited President George W. Bush after the capture of Saddam Hussein. Pollsters are now surveying Americans to find out their opinion of Mr. Obama in the wake of bin Laden's killing, with the first round of results coming soon. (Update: The Washington Post  and Pew are now out with a poll showing Mr. Obama up nine points to 56 percent approval, his highest rating since 2009.)

The degree to which Mr. Obama's likely boost will endure, however, is an open question. And one that is very much on the mind of the (potential and announced) 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

(At left, CBSNews.com's Brian Montopoli and Kevin Hechtkopf discuss a possible Obama boost.) 

Let's look at some recent history: Shortly before Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 52 percent of Americans approved of the job President Bush was doing, while 40 percent disapproved.

After the capture, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 58 percent of approved of the job Mr. Bush was doing - an increase of 6 points. In a CBS News Poll conducted later that December, Mr. Bush was up to a 60 percent approval rating.

Yet while Mr. Bush would go on to win reelection the following year, the boost he got from Hussein's capture appeared to fade - in fact, his approval rating never reached 60 percent again.

Now, the killing of bin Laden may have a more significant effect on Mr. Obama's approval rating than the capture of Hussein did on Mr. Bush's. For starters, bin Laden was the face of the Sept. 11 attacks, and his killing was a cathartic moment for Americans in the way that the capture of Hussein could not be.

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And then there's the fact that most Americans had come to believe bin Laden would never be caught. Gallup polling in 2004 found that two-thirds of Americans believed bin Laden would be captured or killed; by last year, as NPR points out, only one-third said as much. The fact that the killing came among diminished expectations - and at a time when just 26 percent say America is headed in the right direction - added to the psychological boost to Americans, and that's likely to help boost support for the president.

The killing also addresses a perceived area of weakness for Mr. Obama, whose 46 percent disapproval rating on international affairs in last month's CBS News/New York Times poll was the worst showing of his presidency. Republicans have been hammering Mr. Obama hard on foreign policy - casting him as indecisive and apologetic - and the killing of bin Laden immediately blunts many of their arguments.

Still, the long-term consequences are uncertain. The killing of bin Laden may well increase pressure on Mr. Obama to pull troops out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later - after all, the central figure in the attack that began that war is now gone. While the war in Afghanistan has long been about issues other than bin Laden, many Americans are unclear on the mission - and with bin Laden dead, they may be even more prone to question it.

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Consider another example from the Bush presidency. After Mr. Bush triumphantly declared the end of combat operations in Iraq in front of that "Mission Accomplished" banner in May 2003, his approval rating hit around 70 percent. But as the Atlantic notes, the event came back to hurt the president as casualties continued from a war he had effectively declared over. A pair of political scientists concluded that the "Mission Accomplished" moment ultimately cost Mr. Bush at least ten points in his approval rating.

One source to gauge shifting expectations is online predictions market Intrade, where Mr. Obama's re-election odds shot up from about 59 percent up to 70 percent on the night that Mr. Obama announced the news. They then fell back to about 62 percent - perhaps reflecting the perception that Mr. Obama's boost from bin Laden's killing, despite the early fanfare, will ultimately be relatively small.

Mr. Obama, who will visit the World Trade Center site Thursday, is for now basking in praise from unlikely quarters. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney - one of the president's harshest critics - said the administration "clearly deserves credit for the success of the operation." Yet while it will be hard for Republicans to attack Mr. Obama on Afghanistan - most of whom have a position similar to the president on the issue - there's little doubt that members of the GOP, particularly those running for president, will find plenty of ways to go after the president on foreign policy.

And in the end, foreign policy - and bin Laden's killing - may simply not matter all that much. Americans overwhelmingly see the economy as the most important issue facing the country, and the economy has not recovered from the depths of the recession. A high unemployment rate and $4-plus gas prices will likely go further in dictating whether Mr. Obama wins a second term than the killing of a terrorist a year and a half before Election Day.