The death of Osama bin Laden, as is usual with major news stories, leads to many questions. Some will never be answered and some will take time. One of the latter is how this historical footnote will impact on the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
With Osama bin Laden’s death, initial responses by many are to concede next year’s election to President Obama, a knee-jerk reaction based more on emotion than practical thought. No doubt, Obama’s approval rating will skyrocket, and he certainly deserves credit for an important and successful military operation. But history shows that these euphoric feelings don’t guarantee election results.
A good comparison to Obama would be George H.W. Bush. Both incumbents who, the year before potential re-elections, enjoyed foreign policy-generated high approval ratings, but each with serious domestic troubles.
Following the United States-initiated Gulf War in January of 1991 in Operation Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating reached an eye-popping 88%, just two points lower than his son, George W. Bush after September 11. By election day 1992, 21 months later, he had dropped to 37%. Part of the reason for the elder Bush’s collapse was a a primary challenge by uber-conservative Pat Buchanan and the distracting (and vote-sucking) campaign of Ross Perot, who pulled 19% of the popular vote. But most damaging to the president’s defeat was raising taxes (after demonstratively pledging “no new taxes”) and unemployment.
George H.W. Bush was an unsuccessful “consensus builder” and, as the conservative wing of the GOP emphasized, he sided far too much with the Democrats on raising taxes than he did with the Republicans to cut spending.
This beginning to sound eerily familiar, yes?
Under Bush, unemployment peaked at 7.8%; currently, it’s 8.8%.
On Election Day, 1992, the national debt was $4 trillion; today, it’s over $14 trillion
President Bush enjoyed relatively good ratings for the duration of his 4 years in office, but President Obama’s has scarcely topped 50% since September 2010. (see charts)
In other words, the economy trumped a major foreign policy success. Less than two years after Desert Storm, George H. W. Bush went from hero to zero because of higher taxes and unemployment. Barack Obama will also have to deal with taxes and joblessness along with astronomical gas prices, a health care debacle, populist revolt (Tea Party) and more.
There is one other factor that led to Bush’s demise, though. His opponent in 1992 was a young, charismatic Democrat – Bill Clinton. Obama won’t have that opposition cause HE is the young charismatic Democrat and there isn’t much charisma to be found in the current slate of Republicans.
Nonetheless, bin Laden’s death is not only no guarantee for Obama’s reelection, it’s likely to be a non-factor once all is done.