Obama gains, but economy looms for 2012

The killing of America's most wanted terrorist will probably boost Obama's ratings in the short run but many are saying it is too early to determine if it will help him get a second term. The economic conditions will most likely have more of an influence than his recent accomplishment.

by Dan Nowicki
May. 3, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

The death of America's most-wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, on Sunday in a daring, secret U.S. raid was a historic U.S. accomplishment that likely will boost President Barack Obama's political fortunes in the short term.

But political experts and other observers agreed Monday that it remains far too early to predict how the killing of bin Laden will affect Obama's bid for a second term next year.

The economy and pocketbook issues such as high gasoline prices could have more influence on his political fate. And nobody expects that bin Laden's death closes the file on the terror risk posed by al-Qaida, the network he founded that orchestrated the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Retaliatory terror plots are feared.

Obama authorized the risky, but successful, helicopter assault against the al-Qaida compound in an upscale suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden, three men and one woman were killed in a nearly 40-minute firefight. There were no U.S. casualties.

"The president deserves great credit for making the decisions that he made," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who unsuccessfully squared off against Obama in the 2008 presidential election. "I think the president will get great credit from the American people. But still, there are other issues on their minds, primarily the economy, that will have significant impact."

History teaches how fleeting even high-profile overseas successes can be for U.S. commanders in chief. President George H.W. Bush's popularity soared after the U.S.-led defeat of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but he lost the White House to Bill Clinton in 1992. A bad economy helped doom Bush's prospects.

Likewise, the economy has been the dominant U.S. domestic issue since the financial crisis of 2008. One presidential scholar predicted that the economy again will be the overriding factor in the 2012 race and that bin Laden's death helps Obama only marginally.

"If the economy improves, Obama gets re-elected," predicted H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin and author of more than 20 books on presidents, U.S. foreign relations and other topics.

"If it gets worse, well, he might still get re-elected because the Republicans have been unable to come up with a credible candidate at this point. I would say he is the favorite going in, but by no means is he a shoo-in."

Others gave Obama props for getting bin Laden, although they also doubted it alone could ensure a second term.

"He will be able to point to this as a signal achievement, and he will get credit from all sides of the aisle for it, but I don't think it's going to end the 2012 campaign," said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in National Security Council positions.

Besides helping to counter a perception that Obama's foreign policy is muddled and indecisive, the aggressive pursuit of bin Laden is sure to complicate 2012 GOP efforts to undermine his administration as soft on terrorism issues.

The bin Laden operation contributes to an emerging portrait of Obama as a grimly determined president who does not flinch from directing the use of lethal force against U.S. enemies. "From his perspective, it's not just permissible but a good thing to go after people who've been deemed bad actors in the international arena," said Kareem Crayton, a political scientist and associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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