The president and the Democrats, post-bin Laden

Why the political payoff might come later rather than sooner


The death of Osama bin Laden, inflicted by crack U.S. Special Forces personnel acting on the orders of President Barack Obama, is undoubtedly a triumph for the embattled commander in chief. But will it provide him tangible political help when he stands for reelection a year and a half from now?

An obvious recent precedent is President George H.W. Bush, who not only prosecuted a quick, successful war with Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf, but also held office during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

Bush’s ultimate reward for these feats? Being shown the door by voters angry over the economy in 1992.

There are other examples. Harry Truman, after taking over for Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, ordered atomic bombs dropped on Japan, which ended World War II. A little over a year later, his party was dealt stunning setbacks in the 1946 midterms; only a rebounding economy allowed Truman to win reelection in 1948. Across the pond, Winston Churchill and the Tories were swept out of office in July 1945, just two months after the surrender of Nazi Germany.

In all of these examples, victory abroad seemed to focus the electorate on matters at home. But this history provides inexact lessons for today.

To be certain, 9/11 was the deadliest attack ever perpetuated on American civilians, making bin Laden a uniquely loathsome villain. Americans may go to lengths to reward the president for eliminating him.

During Obama’s presidency, however, the public has intensely focused on domestic matters. According to a New York Times-CBS News poll conducted April 15-20, before bin Laden’s death, only 4% of respondents identified war as the most important problem facing the nation (zero percent said “terrorism”); more than half named jobs, the economy or the budget deficit as the biggest problem. Clearly, these are the issues that have been driving the political chatter in Washington lately; indeed, in the president’s own 7,000-word State of the Union in January, he spoke more than 5,000 words before mentioning al-Qaida, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bin Laden’s death could, in fact, make terrorism even less a part of the national conversation than before: If Americans weren’t focused on national security while bin Laden lived, will they focus on it more now that he’s dead? Americans also might conclude that bin Laden’s demise means it is time to end the war in Afghanistan, a conclusion that would surely be at odds with national security elites in both parties.

So in the short term, it’s not at all clear how much bin Laden’s death will help Obama in 2012, particularly if the economy is sputtering. In the long term, though, Democrats might have new ammunition to turn the tables on the GOP on an issue that liberals have long been perceived as losing.

After Mao Zedong’s communists took over China in 1949, Republicans charged that Democrats had “lost China.” The charge stuck, and the nation has seen the GOP as the stronger party on national security essentially ever since.

The specter of being accused of “losing China” has haunted Democrats at various points in the past decades. During Vietnam, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson said that he was “not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” The same fears, and the same assumptions about GOP dominance of the national security issue, assuredly are on the minds of Obama’s national security team as they make decisions about their inherited wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the killing of bin Laden, as ordered by a Democratic president, gives Democrats a convenient and easy-to-understand answer whenever challenged by Republicans on national security: “Republicans had seven years under George W. Bush to get bin Laden. They failed. Democrats got him in a little over two.”

That potentially powerful argument may mean a lot when the country inevitably refocuses on national security in some future election. But whether it matters much for next year’s presidential election, when the focus will likely remain on the economy, is very much an open question.