Bin Laden demise boosts Obama, but doesn't ensure re-election

5:25 AM, May 3, 2011   |    comments
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President Barack Obama


WASHINGTON - These are the moments that presidents hope to be remembered for: The operation to get Osama bin Laden, a goal that eluded George W. Bush, brought Barack Obama a triumphant achievement and the most unifying episode of a presidency held during sharply partisan times.

Pictures: Osama Bin Laden dead

"There's no question it will be seen by history as a critical accomplishment of his administration and of his," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "When you say, 'Quick, name one thing President Obama has done,' this is going to be the first thing on the list.'"

"It absolutely bolsters his standing as a national-security president," says John McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the CIA when the 9/11 attacks occurred and has served presidents of both parties. "He had to make judgments that involved some degree of risk, and implicitly then was prepared to take responsibility for the outcome."

The success of the top-secret operation against al-Qaeda's founder boosts Obama's credentials on handling foreign policy and the perception of him as a strong leader, an issue that had been a growing problem. An outpouring of national pride and relief has overshadowed, if only for now, divisions on everything from Medicare to taxes.

Even former vice president Dick Cheney, who has excoriated Obama in the past , offered congratulations. So did House Speaker John Boehner and GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

But the development, while welcome, also may create some challenges for the administration. Calls to curtail the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan that may grow louder if bin Laden's death prompts Americans to see the mission there as accomplished. 

"There's going to be a lot of strong feeling on the part of most Democrats and ... many independents and even some Republicans that the decision of the president to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan should be a robust reduction," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told a conference call with reporters.

And while bin Laden's death almost certainly will bolster the president's job-approval ratings, it hardly ensures his re-election next year.

Just ask George H.W. Bush, who presided over victory in the first Gulf War, how long Americans remember foreign policy achievements when the economy back home is hurting. The elder Bush went from record-setting approval in 1991 to a defeat at the hands of challenger Bill Clinton in 1992.

"It's a great thing for America; it's a great thing for our military and intelligence network, and it's a great thing for the commander in chief," says Republican consultant Ed Rollins, a former aide in the Reagan White House and strategist for presidential candidates including Mike Huckabee. "But if you're unemployed for a year, I don't think this is going to make you feel a whole lot better for more than a day or two."

Republican pollster Glen Bolger calculates that the "bump" modern presidents receive from major national security events, , averages 13 percentage points and lasts 22 weeks.

"I'm certainly not about to predict the length or size of the bump that Obama receives," Bolger says. "But it is unlikely to run through next year unless the economy improves dramatically as well."

To be sure, failure of the high-risk mission presumably would have been catastrophic , akin to the 1980 failed mission by then-president Jimmy Carter to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran.

That event sealed the perception of Carter as a president who was out of his depth and opened the door to Reagan's victory over him later that year.

"When that didn't work, the fact of the matter is that doomed his presidency," says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration now at the Center for American Progress. For Obama, the impact of such a setback could have been similar: "It would have been pretty tough for him to survive."

The portrait of Obama as a hands-on leader helps combat what had been emerging as a vulnerability. In the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, a 44% plurality said he had been a weaker leader than they expected.

The White House took pains Monday to magnify the moment. The president, they aides said, listened to conflicting views, rejected an early plan to bomb the bin Laden compound and then approved the daring helicopter attack.

He "made what I believe was one of the ... gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory," counterterrorism aide John Brennan said.

Which Obama can only hope voters keep in mind.

By Susan Page, USA TODAY

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