Bin Laden's Death Won't Necessarily Lift Obama

If history is any guide, we can't be certain how this event will change things for the president

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Osama Bin Laden

Osama bin Laden's body had barely hit the water before people were predicting the impact his death would have on the war in Afghanistan, U.S. relations with the Islamic world and President Obama's reelection campaign. The only problem with these immediate statements is that events are unlikely to work out the way anybody expects right now.

That has been the historic pattern. With events like this, unforeseen consequences have been the norm.

When 53 Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, the most oft-heard prediction was that the humiliating spectacle would give a huge boost to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's drive to deny President Carter a second term. Instead, the country rallied around its commander in chief.

Carter's approval ratings, as measured by Gallup, were barely at 30 percent before the hostage-taking. But in the three months afterward, those approval numbers soared to 54 percent in December, 57 percent in January, and 54 percent in February.

With the president following a Rose Garden strategy and supported by the public, Kennedy's campaign stalled and crashed in Iowa. Even the failed "Desert One" rescue attempt on April 24, 1980, could not resuscitate his bid. Carter assumed responsibility for what he refused to admit was a failure and insisted, inexplicably, was "an incomplete success." Again, the public rallied around him.

This time, though, it was a short-lived boost and his approval numbers were down to 31 percent by November. Republican Ronald Reagan later would be able to cite that rescue failure as an embarrassing example of what he called "the hollow military." But very few of the "experts" at the time foresaw the political impact of Iran on Carter.

Nor were the experts close to the mark 23 years later when another president, George W. Bush, donned a green flight suit and a white helmet and jumped into the copilot's seat of a Navy S-3B Viking jet. After a tailhook landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Bush stood under a now-famous "Mission Accomplished" banner and declared the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

Democrats were both angry and glum; Republicans were gleeful. The pictures of the commander in chief getting mobbed by cheering sailors and aviators were priceless. Everybody knew those pictures would be used in campaign ads the next year.

Well, they were. But not in the Republican ads like everybody thought. Instead, they were in Democratic ads as pointed reminders of executive hubris and political overreach by a president who had misread how difficult it would be to really end combat in Iraq.

Bush did get some immediate benefit from his declaration of victory--his approval rating hovered in the low 70s and high 60s for a couple of months. But by July, as measured by Gallup, it dropped into the 50s and by January he was in the 40s and in a real battle for a second term.

Presented by

George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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