The bin Laden Raid And The 2012 Elections

Osama bin Laden's death provides Barack Obama with an important political shield during the upcoming campaign.

Philip Klein doesn’t think the President will ultimately get much political traction out of the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden:

For all the debate over whether it’s fair game for President Obama’s campaign to tout the killing of Osama bin Laden and suggest that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have ordered the raid, the reality is that the issue is very unlikely to have much impact in the election. As it is, when news of the operation broke one year ago, Obama received a small six-point bounce in Gallup’s daily tracking poll that had dissipated within two weeks. In contrast, at a time when national security was a greater focus for Americans, President Bush got a 15-point bump after Saddam Hussein’s capture that lasted seven weeks.


However many problems I have with Obama’s national security policy, I believe that in the political context, he’ll be able to point to the bin Laden killing to help neutralize charges that he’s too much of an appeaser. But I don’t think he’ll be able to get much of an actual boost out of it, because the War on Terror has receded in importance to most Americans.

For the most part, I agree with Klein’s assessment here. In the end, it’s going to be the economy and the direction of the country that decide this election, not foreign policy. The most important thing that the death of Osama bin Laden has one for the President politically is that it has pretty much taken foreign policy off the table as an effective wedge issue, which is the assessment I had made the day after the raid itself.

However, it’s worth noting that it’s only one of the the things that the President can point to as a foreign policy success over the past four years. He ended America’s involvement in Iraq  and brought every American service member home from that country after one of the most unpopular wars in American history. Although I opposed it at the time and we still don’t know what the long term future of Libya will be (it’s not looking good, by the way), he was President when Muammar Ghadaffi was finally deposed after being a (mostly small) pain America’s backside for decades. We’ve taken out several top members of al Qaeda via drone strikes. These are not small accomplishment and, even though it’s unlikely that they’re going to decide the election, it’s likely that voters are going to remember them as we get closer to Election Day.

Compare Barack Obama’s situation today to Jimmy Carter’s at this time in 1980. Both men were dealing with a shattered economy and high unemployment, but Carter had international problems to worry about. Americans continued be held hostage in the American Embassy in Teheran, and a mission to rescue them had just ended in an embarrassing failure. The Soviet Union was seemingly expanding its ambitions south by invading Afghanistan, raising fears among some that it might eventually pose a strategic threat to the oil fields of the Middle East. And, just to America’s south in Nicaragua, a pro-Soviet/pro-Cuban regime had just taken hold. When Ronald Reagan would ask people to consider whether they were better off now than they had been four years previously, he wasn’t just referring to their economic security but to their sense of national security and the sense that was sweeping the country at the time that the United States was losing ground on the world stage. It was an effective one-two punch against Carter, mostly because it was true and because it reinforced the general idea at the time that Carter was a weak and ineffective leader.

Barring some kind of foreign policy disaster,  Barack Obama won’t be facing this kind of problem. The economy is still a huge mess, and could still lead to the President’s defeat, but Republicans aren’t going to be able to credibly make the argument that Barack Obama has been weak or indecisive when it comes to foreign policy, or that he’s made the wrong decisions. The areas where Obama could rightly be criticized — not seeking Congressional authorization for the mission in Libya, continuing and expanding drone strikes, expanding the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan — are areas that neither Mitt Romney nor any other Republican are likely to go to because, to be honest, they don’t really disagree with him in those areas. It also make it harder for Republicans to attack the President on leadership issues.

So, yes, the biggest electoral impact of the bin Laden raid will be that it provides a shield for the President against attacks by his opponents. However, the shield it provides is a very important and effective one, and one that will reinforce the idea that Obama is the President, while Romney is just the guy running against him. In the end, that’ s why the Obama campaign has decided to make this a political issue.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    Analogies are almost always inadequate…but I would quibble with the “shield” analogy.
    We are talking about real world accomplishments. Accomplishments the opposition party did not and/or could not accomplish.
    The proper analogy would be be a weapon with which to attack Republicans. And that is what Obama is doing with it. And that is why Republicans are so po’ed. They don’t have a shield.

  2. legion says:

    While I agree that, come November, getting OBL will not be a major factor for people in the voting booths, it does currently serve as a _fantastic_ brick wall for Romney and the GOP machine to bash their heads against. The more time they spend whining like little children about how mean Obama is for reminding everyone how they all failed when they had the chance to do the same thing, the less time they have to come up with any actual alternative to re-electing O.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Wow…stop the presses…
    Ric Grenell, Romney’s Foreign Policy Spokesman and anopenly gay man, has been forced to resign because of controversy with the base.

    “…The ongoing pressure from social conservatives over his appointment and the reluctance of the Romney campaign to send Grenell out as a spokesman while controversy swirled left Grenell essentially with no job…”

    The Romney campaign should be ashamed for their lack of cajones.
    The Republican party should be ashamed for their homophobia.
    And anyone still supporting Romney should be ashamed for doing so.

  4. I think the problem with this:

    However, it’s worth noting that it’s only one of the the things that the President can point to as a foreign policy success over the past four years.

    Is that you’ve got a big-war framing. We all do at this point. We compare foreign policy “initiatives” to trillion dollar wars.

    At some point, staying out of trouble, and not miring the nation in new, decade long, quagmires is a win.

    Preposterously some conservatives fault Obama for not getting them out quick enough of their own decade long quagmires .. but that’s to form, isn’t it?

    (On Libya: My sister just got back, said it was nice, people were happy.)

  5. Nikki says:

    Obama marks the Bin Laden anniversary with a trip to Afghanistan.

  6. mantis says:

    Lets look at the campaign lessons we have learned this week.

    – It’s extremely offensive for a politician to take credit for his/her successes in a campaign, if he/she is a Democrat.
    – If you are a national Republican, don’t even think about hiring one of “the gay.” The GOP nuts will ride him/her out of town on a rail.
    – Scott Brown wants to eliminate his own daughter’s health insurance coverage, but whether his opponent has a Cherokee great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother is the more pressing policy issue, obviously.
    – For Republicans, deficits and spending are the most important issues, but neither of them matter at all if tax cuts are in play.
    – The word “forward” is a Communist plot.

    Did I miss anything?

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    @mantis: “Mission Accomplished” is all right when it’s not but not when it is.

  8. @mantis:

    If you are a national Republican, don’t even think about hiring one of “the gay.” The GOP nuts will ride him/her out of town on a rail.

    Everytime I get to the point where I start considering where I should vote for Romney, someone from the Santorum wing jumps into the new cycle to remind me why I switched to being an independent.

    On the bright side, Gary Johnson continues to look good for the LP nomination.

  9. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, icing bin Laden alone elevates Obama above Jimmy Carter, regardless what happens in November. That said the election of course will be about the stupidity, economy. That said the issues of missile defense in Eastern Europe and relations with Israel might very well be fertile ground for Team Romney, respectively, in Western PA and Northern and Eastern Ohio (missile defense) and in Florida (Israel).

  10. anjin-san says:

    To say that Romney/the GOP/Fox does not hold a very strong hand in the 2012 elections is putting it mildly. They are going to just keep throwing shit at the wall and hope something sticks. They had been praying for $6.00 gas, but that is not going to work out.

    What else can they run on? Romney’s strength as a candidate? A coherent vision for the future of America? Nope, BS and hot are about all there is…

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Philip Klein doesn’t think the President will ultimately get much political traction out of the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden:

    Philip Klein avoids the obvious. Republicans are already trying to minimize Obama’s decision to order the mission that resulted in the killing of Bin Laden. It will be Republicans who will determine if the president gains any traction from this. If the GOP persists in denigrating the president on this, then Obama will keep bringing to the public’s attention that he ordered a very successful mission. If Republicans leave it alone, less self-inflicted damage will be done to the GOP.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    I think the big foreign policy issue may be Afghanistan. A new FOX poll today, no link – not on the intertubes yet, showed the over 70% of Americans want us out now with only 16% wanting us to stay. Of course Romney has to be even more of a hawk than Obama so probably no advantage for either but it could get Gary Johnson a few votes..

  13. @Ron Beasley:

    Of course Romney has to be even more of a hawk than Obama so probably no advantage for either

    Romney will just blame Obama for losing the war and advocate ending this lost cause, so we can focus on future disastrous wars in Syria and Iran. Thus being anti-Afghanistan AND pro-war.

  14. RalfW says:

    They key here to me is that Obama has made it rather difficult for the GOP to use the standard “Dems weak on defense” trope. Will that gain him much? No. But it stems potential dings, losses and eye pokes quite a bit. Hence the whinging on the right — they know a shopworn but useful tool on their side is dulled.