This post was written by Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart

 Last week, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, we looked at the average job approval bump for Presidents following major military and/or national security events. Not including the post 9/11 response, the average Presidential approval bump was 13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} for an average of 22 weeks. Eleven days after President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed, the President’s approval bump looks to be well below that average.

On May 2, the day after Bin Laden was killed, President Obama’s average approval rating according to Real Clear Politics was 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve/47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove. Nine days later, Obama’s average approval is 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve/42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove, for a five point approval bump (this average approval is based on the twelve national public polls released and conducted between May 2 and May 10).

While some polls showed Obama’s approval rating reaching levels not seen since the early months of his Presidency (57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in a CBS/New York Times poll conducted May 2-3), other polls showed his approval remaining below 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} (48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in a Newsweek/Daily Beast poll also conducted May 2-3).

There are several factors that kept Obama’s bump from being as large as that of past Presidents.


1. This was good news, not bad news.

 Bumps tend to be larger when the major military/national security event is bad news, with September 11th being the most prominent example. These events result in a rally around the flag effect that often produces large and sustained bumps. Positive events like the first Gorbachev summit and the capture of Sadaam Hussein more often produce smaller and/or shorter bumps in Presidential approval.


2. Obama’s liberal base was already home.

 Obama’s approval numbers with Democrats were already strong prior to Bin Laden being killed, so his approval numbers were not going to be boosted by the base coming home. In the week prior to Bin Laden’s death, Gallup had Obama’s approval at 86{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} with liberal Democrats and at 83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} with African Americans. In the week after, his approval with liberal Democrats was unchanged, and his approval with African Americans increased just three points. (As an aside, despite some speculation to the contrary, Obama does NOT have a problem with his liberal base.)

 3. The public is more informed than ever before.

On Tuesday of last week, our friend Chuck Todd tweeted:

“My theory these days is that the public is more informed and “formed” than even just a few years ago, thus floors/ceilings for presidents are more narrow.  Translation: I expect a single digit bounce at best. And I’d say that about any president serving with this hyper-informed ADD public.” 

One week later, Todd’s reasoning and prediction both look dead on.

4. The economy continues to dominate the issue agenda.

 In the most recent NBC national survey, conducted less than a week after Bin Laden was killed, Obama’s approval on handling the economy was the lowest it has ever been (37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve/58{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove). Americans’ continued discontent with the President’s handling of the economy surely served to diminish his approval bump, and it will likely cause the bump to be short lived.

5. There is no telling the impact of the White House messing up the narrative.

While it is hard to tell if it had an impact, the fact that the White House stepped on its own triumph the next day by revising the story of what happened probably did not help create a bigger bounce.

The Bottom Line

The death of Osama Bin Laden was welcome and long awaited news for many Americans. President Obama, former President Bush, and the U.S. Armed Forces deserve tremendous praise for all they did to make it possible. 

However, from a political standpoint, Bin Laden’s death was not the game changer some predicted it would be. The killing of Bin Laden resulted in a small approval bump for the President, but had little (if any) impact on his chances of being re-elected. Obama’s re-election chances continue to hinge on the economy, and if economic perceptions do not improve significantly, the President is beatable in 2012.

Public Opinion Strategies