You heard it even before the news officially broke Sunday night: If Osama bin Laden had indeed been killed, then President Obama’s chances of reelection had suddenly jumped to near-certainty.
Monday morning, I put that bit of conventional wisdom to my network of Republican consultants, all of whom worked on a 2008 presidential campaign (and some of whom have worked on quite a few). Because of the sensitivity of discussing political winners and losers so quickly after dramatic, apolitical news, all of them were granted anonymity.
Is Obama’s reelection now a certainty? One former GOP official in a key swing state scoffed, “Of course not. But I expect that to be the rallying cry from trolls from here on out. I’ve already seen several postings on message boards from so-called conservatives saying things like ‘I’m going to vote for Obama now.’ Astroturfing away. Will it guarantee his re-election? No. But when you have a billion dollars and 90 percent of the media behind you, it can’t hurt.”
The most common assessment was that while Obama would enjoy a temporary surge in his approval ratings, the 2012 election appeared likely to be about the economy, and Obama’s reelection bid remained on shaky ground.
“On the Bin Laden narrative itself, I think there we need to see it play out. Obama laid out a story last night that had a lot of ‘I dids’ in them. If the story ends up being different, then the administration has set itself for — again — making the president appear bigger than he is,” said one GOP consultant based in Washington. (These comments came before the administration’s strange walk-back of whether or not Osama hid behind a woman in his final moments and some contradictions on whether Osama was armed.)
“This was not a ‘foreign policy success.’ It was a good leadership success, and those are good to have and promote. But — unlike with Bush — we haven’t been hearing the ‘why haven’t you caught OBL’ drumbeat, so this was a nice surprise in a dismal economic and low morale period. 2012 will still be about jobs, spending and taxes. It will be about expansion of federal government in our lives. And I suspect it will be America’s lack of standing in the world as a result of our miserable economic situation. Historically, beating an incumbent president is tough. I have thought that the right, conservative, experience-heavy GOP ticket can win. I still think that.”
Another, based well outside the Beltway, drew similar conclusions: “If Bin Laden’s demise changes the arc of events in the Middle East, and that results in falling gas prices, then that will bring big dividends to Team O. Of course it could also cause things to go in the opposite direction, spiking gas prices even higher. And high gas prices are like kryptonite to a president’s approval ratings. All else (gas prices, unemployment rate) being equal, Obama does not naturally benefit from a pivot to national-security issues, so it’s hard to see how this event is a huge, sustained, windfall for the president. I’m guessing he’ll get a short-term spike in his numbers. Then everyone will go fill their tank on the way to the grocery store and opinion will reset.”
One GOP consultant based in a key primary state perhaps dipped into hyperbole when he said, “This is a three-day story tops.” But he added, “Yes, Obama will claim credit and the press will give him credit. Even I, a partisan hack, am grateful that he took the shot when he had it. Now, that said, our international situation has moved a lot in the past decade, so much so that I dare say Osama bin Laden has devolved into a less significant player. No doubt this is an important moment, but it will have the approximate impact that pulling Saddam out of the spider hole had on the 2004 election; that is to say, a marginal one . . . The debt ceiling, the 2012 budget, GNP growth (or lack thereof), jobs, the dollar, Libya, entitlement reform; each of these are more important to 2012 than the whacking of OBL.”
But one Republican consultant had a particularly pessimistic assessment of GOP chances in 2012, and this person offered the intriguing argument that with one wildly successful display of American power, Obama had generated counter-evidence to the argument that he’s an incompetent who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“My gut is that this causes a bunch of people who were getting dismissive of Obama to stop and reconsider the difficulty of beating him,” this consultant said. “It may not outweigh concerns about the economy. But my independent friends who voted for Obama in 2008 were just getting fed up with him — they felt they had been conned, that he’s an amateur, that he didn’t know what he was doing and that he was all hype. This provides at least one example of counter-evidence, and now Republican candidates have to jump over this hurdle: Are they credible on national security and foreign policy and can voters picture them pulling the trigger on a high-stakes mission like this one?”