Trump May Not Benefit Politically From Al-Baghdadi’s Death

If President Trump expected to get a political bump from the death of the leader of ISIS, he is most likely going to be disappointed.

If President Trump hoped that the death of the leader of ISIS earlier this week may have political benefits for him, Philip Bump at The Washington Post notes that this may not be the case. In support of his argument, Bump relies on four basic arguments, the first of which relates to the political impact for former President Obama of the death of Osama bin Laden:

We have a recent moment that seems as though it should provide some useful guidance on this question: the 2011 raid that resulted in the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama’s approval rating rose seven points over the course of a week, driven in part by an 11-point jump among Republicans.

But it was short-lived, a brief shift in a steady downward trend. Within two months, Obama’s approval overall and with every partisan group was back where it had been before bin Laden’s death — or lower.

The bin Laden raid is, of course, not the only example of a President only receiving a best a temporary boost from a foreign policy success.

In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush saw his popularity and job approval hit record high and stayed there for quite some time The senior Bush’s numbers were so high that they largely caused several top Democrats to refrain from mounting a campaign against him in 1992, including the person who probably would have been the Democratic Party frontrunner, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Instead of Cuomo, Democrats ended up with candidates such as California Governor Jerry Brown, Massachusetts Congressman Paul Tsongas, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, and an upstart Governor from Arkansas named William Jefferson Clinton. Once the economy started turning southward, though, Bush’s popularity took a hit and, eventually, of course, he lost the election to Clinton.

A decade later, Bush’s son saw a similar bump in popularity driven by the September 11th attacks and the successes the nation experienced in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, several Democrats declined to run against him in 2004. As with his father, Bush saw those previously high numbers decrease significantly, and while he eventually won re-election it was by a much smaller margin thaj you might have expected a year earlier based on his poll numbers.

In addition to this Bump also notes a number of other factors. First of all, despite Trump’s claim to the contrary, it’s fairly clear that Baghdadi was not a bigger “get” than bin Laden. As Bump puts it, bin Laden was far better known as the long-term leader and public face of al Qaeda than al-Baghdadi was with respect to ISIS. Indeed, unlike bin Laden, al-Baghdadi was seldom-seen or heard from and seen by U.S. intelligence as more of a spiritual leader than a tactical or strategic one. Additionally, it’s not at all clear that ISIS is defeated or that al-Baghdadi’s death will lead to a withering away of the movement he started. While the Caliphate was defeated, the ISIS movement remains in place thanks to some 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria and international “affiliates” in locations ranging from Afghanistan and Yemen to Central Africa. Finally, the President’s news conference on the incident likely did more harm than good in its false bravado.

Finally, Bump notes that nothing, not even good news, has done much to move Trump’s poll numbers:

The most practical reason to think that Trump may not see a sustained polling bump from the Baghdadi death is that, despite all of the remarkable events that have occurred during his presidency, his approval rating has remained remarkably consistent. Republicans love Trump, Democrats dislike him, and independents are skeptical. This new event seems unlikely to shift that calculus.

It’s worth noting that polling suggests terrorism is generally a bigger concern for Republicans than for Democrats. Meaning that the death of a prominent terrorist seems like it would be more likely to prompt a boost with Republicans — the group with which Trump is already doing the best.

We have certainly been surprised before on how the public reacts to news events, of course. But the idea that Trump will not suddenly become broadly popular thanks to this raid seems like a safe bet — World Series reaction aside.

Bump is probably onto something here. For better or worse, public opinion about Trump has been set in stone he became President and even before. This applies to both his job approval number and his favorable/unfavorable numbers, both of which are highly negative. It seems unlikely Baghdadi’s death will change anything.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Afghanistan War, Africa, National Security, Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, 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. CSK says:

    Team Trumpkin gets a lot more excited when he takes on their and his perceived domestic rather than foreign enemies.

    When Trump attacks Pelosi, Schiff, Romney, Ryan, etc., they’re ecstatic.
    When Trump attacks al-Baghdadi? Meh. Nice, but not thrilling.

  2. CSK says:

    The House just passed the resolution to authorize the continuing impeachment inquiry.

  3. Kathy says:

    I bet that a year from now, if you ask people about the killing of bin Laden during Obama’s term, people would know what you’re talking about. if you ask them about Al-Baghdadi’s death during Trump’s term, the reaction you’re most likely to encounter will be “Who is Baghdadi?”

    Surprisingly, this says nothing about the merits of either Obama or Dennison, but about the importance, and above all notoriety, people ascribe to their targets.

  4. CSK says:

    @Kathy: And part of that, as I said, is because Cult45 doesn’t really care all that much about al-Baghdadi. Now if Trump had personally assassinated Nancy Pelosi, they’d be weeping tears of joy.

  5. KM says:

    That’s because they think that’s what the GOP normally does: kill terrorists, be badass and fight evil while the libs cower and cry their bleeding little hearts out. They are accustomed to the idea that conservatives want to fight their enemies and take scalps; they also think they are born winners and exceptionally American so why would snagging a bad guy be such a big deal? That’s supposed to be constant over there – that’s WHY we are supposed to be over there! It’s like a COD player bragging about taking out one enemy – so what, there’s still a map full of them, get to it!

    What makes Trump special in their eyes is he’s openly going after the evil they think the GOP’s been too cowardly to strike at aka the rest of us. That’s why they think he’s all tough and macho – finally, they’ve got the tank for the boss run and it’s go time! Who cares about the endless waves of faceless mooks, taking down the boss wins you the game. It’s all about winning…..

  6. CSK says:

    @KM: I get the distinct impression from what a lot of Cult45 says on the websites where the members cluster is that they believe that all Democrats and most Republicans are far, far, far more dangerous to them than ISIS.

  7. Slugger says:

    Perhaps, the public has decided to discount Trump statements. Mexico is not paying for a wall, coal-mining has not become a hot career path, and North Korea hasn’t disarmed. Trump says the death of this guy is a big deal; I will think about it when I get back from the big military parade in D.C.

  8. KM says:

    @CSK :
    Of course they do. ISIS can only kill you – they won’t make you be nice to gays or women or minorities or other faiths because they hate them too. ISIS isn’t going to allow abortions or treat trans people like human beings – they’re going to enforce a strict, binary, religious-tinged worldview where God is In Charge and liberals are terrible threats to the sanctity of life. They really only differ on the details but hey, isn’t that the devil of it all?

    They *understand* ISIS on a level they’re not comfortable examining. Don’t agree with their religion? Religion wins and you’re lucky if all you lose is your dignity. Don’t think their worldview is correct? GTFO, your choice is hell or the highway, this is *their* country even if they just invaded this morning. Think people who are different then you deserve equal human rights and legal protections? Hah hah, time for the stoning. They *get* ISIS because if they were given the chance, they’d *be* the Christian equivalent.

    Meanwhile, Dems are these mysterious threats who take things like law and reason and equality seriously. They actually expects rules to be followed and your fellow citizen to be treated like you treat yourself. They are an existential threat whereas ISIS is merely a physical one. If you really believe you’re going to hell if you don’t stop abortion, ISIS can only destroy your mortal form but Dems can condemn you to hell. They’re a philosophical threat in that they challenge petty people with shitty values and make them look like the selfish a-holes they are.

    Remember: sticks and stones will break your bones but words can make you think you deserved it. They don’t want to contemplate what they might deserve after what they’ve done…..

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    The country is 54/42. It will remain 51/42 at least until public impeachment hearings.

  10. Gustopher says:

    It’s already basically out of the news.

    It turns out that if you have a corrupt ad I sit ration that floods the daily news cycle, not only do scandals vanish into the background, but accomplishments as well.

  11. de stijl says:

    If you brag and bluster – praise yourself rather than the people who got it done – people who are not cultists will say “Good job.”

    Trump’s presentation precluded a sustained bump. He sold it as a treat for his base and a trick to his opponents.

    Grace and humility (even feigned) resonate. Bragadocio is not a winning trait.