Behind the Numbers

The Bin Laden Bounce

Does killing bad guys really help at the ballot box?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

"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.

The point is that neither military feat kept voters from ousting Bush senior from the White House under the banner of "it's the economy, stupid." Even though Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison just months before the 1992 election, voters didn't go to the voting booth to reward his capture.

So, while Obama shouldn't expect voters to reelect him for taking out bin Laden, there is a reason he won a rousing standing ovation from the joint session of Congress last Tuesday, Jan. 24: Many Americans think of it as his best accomplishment. In a Washington Post-ABC poll last June, finding and killing bin Laden was the No. 1 action Obama did "especially well" as president, some four times the proportion naming any other single accomplishment.

It also may have had a real effect on how safe Americans feel from terrorism. Fully 64 percent of Americans in a September Washington Post-ABC poll said their country was safer from terrorism than before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, up 16 points from 2010 and near the highest on record.

But Americans don't necessarily punish a president for failing to track down an archnemesis. Running against Bush in 2004, Sen. John Kerry said he "would have made Osama bin Laden the priority" rather than focusing on Iraq. The complaint may have fallen on deaf ears. Nearly six in 10 Americans approved Bush's handling of terrorism in a September 2004 Washington Post-ABC poll, and he led Kerry by more than 20 points when it came to whether the public trusted him to handle the issue.

The harsh reality of taking down bogeymen is that once they've been removed from action, Americans may turn to judge the president on other issues. As with Bush in 1992, Obama's 2012 fate hinges on how voters think he's handling the economy, not his vanquishing of America's most despised enemy.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

Home Front

The presidency will be won or lost on the strength of the economy, but some surprising international issues may mix things up.

 Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

A slender nine percent of Americans say that President Barack Obama should focus on foreign policy, while 81 percent prefer a domestic focus, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Monday. It's the most lopsided result in 15 years of Pew polls, underscoring that no matter what financial troubles brew in Europe or how fractious the diplomatic skirmishes with Iran, Americans' first priority is dealing with problems on the home front.

It's no surprise, then, that Obama spent only six minutes of his hour-long State of the Union speech addressing foreign policy issues (See the Washington Post's neat graphic breaking down the speech by topic). In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, about half of Americans volunteered jobs and the economy as the most important election issue in 2012; fewer than one in 20 named international issues. Two percent named terrorism and illegal immigration alike.

Not all foreign policy issues are seen as unimportant, however. Asked individually, nearly seven in ten (69 percent) in the Pew poll say terrorism is a "top priority" for Obama and Congress this year, though that's down 11 points in the past five years. Four in ten name illegal immigration, "strengthening the U.S. military," or global trade as key priorities for the president. Global warming ranks lowest on the list of 22 issues, with only one in four calling it a top priority.

Of course, unexpected international crises can rise to the forefront of political debates (see, Egypt and Libya, 2011). We noted last week that Iran may be just such a sleeper issue, as Americans are broadly concerned with the possibility that Tehran will acquire a nuclear weapon. Nearly three in ten Americans (28 percent) now say Iran represents the "greatest danger" to the United States in the new Pew poll, topping China (22 percent) -- and more than double the number who said this in 2011 (12 percent). So, overall it still may be the economy, stupid -- but individual issues do matter.

Gingrich, the diplomat?

Newt Gingrich is catching up to Mitt Romney in Florida according to a poll from Quinnipiac University released Wednesday, which also shows that Gingrich holds a two to one advantage among likely GOP voters on foreign affairs. Fully 53 percent of likely voters in next Tuesday's primary say Gingrich would do the best job on foreign policy, while 26 percent pick Romney. It's his biggest advantage over Romney across 11 issues and attributes tested in the survey, and a confirmation of strength for the former Speaker of the House that initially appeared in November polls.

That said, international issues appear to be on the back burner for many voters, with the economy dominating many debates. And in Florida, Romney holds a wide advantage over Gingrich in terms of which candidate voters prefer to handle the economy.

Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images