Does Osama’s Death Change the Presidential Race?

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Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Our opinion: a little. Anyone claiming that Osama bin Laden's death will guarantee President Obama's reelection fails to take into account how much time remains until people actually vote. Like George W. Bush after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Obama will probably see a short-term boost in the polls. But eighteen months still stand between now and election day, and the good feelings of bin Laden's death will fade away long before then. As before, the state of the economy and the identity of the Republican nominee (will it be a borderline insane person?) will be the election's most decisive factors. Not to mention that other unpredictable events can intervene and change everything. Another terrorist attack? A huge scandal? The return of Jesus on May 21? It's impossible to know. Still, it's definitely going to be a lot harder for the GOP field to portray Obama as an apologetic, pussyfooting commander-in-chief now, a line of attack that never really made sense (Afghanistan? Pirates? Libya? Drone attacks?) but is even less convincing now that Obama oversaw the war on terror's biggest victory.

That's just our take. Here's what everyone else is saying.

Chuck Todd and friends, First Read/MSNBC:

While it’s doubtful that Osama bin Laden’s death will have as long of a political impact [as 9/11] — especially in this fast-changing, short-term memory media landscape — it will surely shape the contours of next year’s presidential race. For starters, it will hover over the first Republican debate set for this Thursday, even if it’s not a direct question. It also will highlight the GOP field’s foreign-policy and national-security credentials, or their lack thereof. And it amounts to Barack Obama’s top achievement as president. Last night changes everything (for now), but we also know how quickly it can dissipate.

Mark Halperin, Page/Time:

A triumph for Obama, it will have an impact in November 2012, regardless of what happens over the next 18 months. It will resonate on the upcoming ten-year anniversary of September 11, and again in September 2012. This is a great day for America, but make no mistake: this is a great day for Obama's re-election effort. Republicans running for president are going to have to face that fact, even as they celebrate this historic occasion with the rest of the country.

Glenn Greenwald, Salon:

[I]t's going to be a huge boost to Obama's re-election prospects and will be exploited for that end -- than anything else.

Erick Erickson, Red State:

People have short memories. Voters have short memories. The good will toward Mr. Obama will not last past one or two fill ups. If the economy does not improve, if gas prices do not go down significantly, and if jobs are not created, Barack Obama will lose. The death of Osama Bin Laden is a good thing. But it has no staying power into 2012.

Nate Silver, Five Thirty Eight/New York Times:

But, the 2012 election was probably not going to revolve around national security. Instead, the Republican nominee was probably going to attempt to make the campaign about the size of government and the future of the welfare state: how to deal with entitlement programs in the face of an increasing national debt. This news may not change the focal point of the campaign. And it may not cause Americans to forget about the direction of the economy, which they remain largely unhappy about. The biggest mistake that Republican candidates could make would be to be intimated by the approval ratings of a president who, while not easy to defeat, may still be quite vulnerable in November 2012.

Jonathan Chait, New Republic:

The political ramifications: Minimal to nonexistent. The economy will tell the tale in 2012, and Obama—who had been getting relatively little foreign policy flak from the GOP —was not having a problem establishing his credibility as a foreign policy president on the right. Obama can add this to his list of accomplishments, but it's hard to see it moving voters.

Robert Kuttner, TAPPED/American Prospect:

[P]eople who think that this assures the president’s re-election are a little premature. A few other things have to happen first. We need to avoid a double-dip recession, or a combination of inflation and recession, which is looking increasingly likely. How many dollars a gallon in the price of gas does Osama's killing offset? How much of an uptick of unemployment in the midwest? How much does it bulletproof Obama in a nasty budget fight where all of the momentum is on the side of austerity?

Paul West, Baltimore Sun:

In purely political terms, the impact is unlikely to be as long-lasting as Democrats might hope, with the 2012 election still more than a year and a half away. And it is not directly linked to the public's top priority, which remains the domestic economy and the dearth of jobs nationwide. But it may well remind Americans, and the world, of the unparalleled might of the U.S. military establishment, and of Obama's own resolve.

Aaron Goldstein, American Spectator:

The magnitude of bin Laden's killing is such that it makes Donald Trump's efforts to question Obama's legitimacy look petty and stupid. The emotional outpouring that has come about as a result simply cannot be ignored. The spontaneous celebrations will, of course, soon pass. Nevertheless, people will invariably associate bin Laden's demise with President Obama. As long as that is the case the electorate will be strongly inclined to give Obama another four years in office.

Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair:

[T]his signal victory may be almost as fleeting for President Obama as every other victory of his tumultuous tenure has turned out to be. He may be “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” this morning, but by next week he might be a Socialist milquetoast who leads from behind all over again.

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones:

So does the killing of Osama bin Laden help Barack Obama's reelection chances? I doubt it. .... But there are at least two ways in which bin Laden's death could still make a difference. First, the quality of opposition matters, and GOP contenders are making their campaign decisions now, not 18 months from now. It's possible that yesterday's news will tip a few high-quality candidates against running in 2012, and this would obviously make Obama's job easier. The other way it could matter is a bit more subtle: bin Laden's death could, conceivably, lead to changes in U.S. foreign policy that make Obama's reelection more likely.

Matt Yglesias, Think Progress:

Even though I don’t think it’s plausible that voters will reward Obama retroactively from this success in November 2012, it is plausible that Obama’s approval ratings will go up in the short-term. And that could change the political dynamic in DC in a number of ways and that, in turn, could to things happening that have a real impact on the economy.

Chris Cillizza, Fix/Washington Post:

How Obama and the Republican men and women who want to replace him next November act in the aftermath of this news could set the tone — and the issue agenda — for the next months of the 2012 campaign. Remember that moments matter in campaigns, particularly when they are as unpredictable and unexpected as this one. The vote for president is ultimately a vote for the person best equipped to represent and lead the country. And it’s in times like this one, when the average person is paying attention, that minds tend to get made up about who is up to task — and who isn’t.

John Nichols, Nation:

That said, the essential image of Obama as "presidential" has by most political measures gotten a boost. And his political team will not hesitate to play this moment out -- perhaps in a more dignified manner than did George W. Bush's political czar, Karl Rove, did for his boss in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but not with any less intent to capitalize on an opportunity to spin "national unity" and "good feeling" into political gold .... As Karl Rove would tell you: it's a fight for advantage. And, at precisely the point when his challengers are trying to get traction, Obama just scored a brand new stockpile of that precious commodity.

Michael Barone, Washington Examiner:

My own guess is that Barack Obama will get a spike in the polls now and that the 2012 election will be decided largely on other factors. But that’s just a guess.

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution:

My quick take is that that Obama will be re-elected (getting Osama is way more important than Iraq or Saddam in the American mind, attacks on American soil, etc.), at this point the Republicans won’t try to beat him from the center and will thus nominate a more extreme candidate and lose badly, and the most important effects will be on Pakistan, not this country.

Paul Steinhauser, CNN:

In the short term, criticism by many of the probable and possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates of how the president is handling foreign affairs may diminish. But that is unlikely to continue in the long run once the campaign heats up. Many of these likely GOP contenders for the White House have attacked Obama's responses to the unfolding events in Egypt, Libya and Yemen the past three months.


Barbara Walters, RealClearPolitics:

I would hate now to be a Republican candidate thinking of running.