"For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country," said U.S. President Barack Obama at the top of his State of the Union speech last week. For good measure, he closed his hourlong speech on the same note, speaking of the flag given to him by the Navy SEALs who killed the al Qaeda mastermind. And at a retreat later in the week, Vice President Joe Biden recounted to House Democrats how Obama made the decision to invade bin Laden's hiding place largely on his own, receiving little encouragement from his top advisors. A true presidential moment, we're told.
Obama and his team clearly see eliminating bin Laden as a top administration achievement. It's nearly conventional wisdom at this point that this refrain will be repeated throughout the forthcoming presidential campaign as a singular success. Who doesn't like getting bad guys? But do Americans really reward at the ballot box presidents who take down their bogeymen?
The answer may be disappointing.
Less than a month before bin Laden was killed, Obama held a 47 percent job approval rating in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Immediately after the successful raid, it shot up to 56 percent. But only one month later, Obama's approval was back at 47 percent again -- and he fell as low as 42 percent in the next six months amid continuing economic troubles.
Simply put, no matter the patriotic fervor, there are other issues that matter much more to voters. Even on the issue of terrorism, Obama's ratings have settled back to pre-bin Laden levels. They spiked to a remarkably high 69 percent immediately after the raid, but slipped to 60 percent the next month. Currently, 56 percent approve of Obama on terrorism, according to a January Washington Post-ABC poll, exactly where they were in February of last year. As we've noted before, his relatively strong reviews on terrorism haven't buoyed ratings on foreign policy in general, nor those on his handling of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But perhaps we should have known this already. When it comes to presidents seeing diminished returns for catching the bad guy, there's a good deal of precedent.
George W. Bush got a 4-point bounce when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. But only two months later, his job approval rating sank below where it was before Saddam's roundup.
His father could have warned him. The elder Bush ended a long-running feud with Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega in early 1990 with a swift invasion and capture, rocketing his already high 66 percent job rating up to 79 percent in a Post-ABC poll. But it sunk back to 65 percent in July before rising the next month with the onset of the Gulf War (also considered a big success by Americans). Of course, Obama would kill for numbers like these now.