The Impact of Bin Laden's Death

Washington Matters

The Impact of Bin Laden's Death

Obama’s political stock will rise, but for how long?

The death of Osama bin Laden won’t cripple al Qaeda and probably won’t make the United States or the world any safer from terrorists.

But it will give a lift, for at least a bit, to President Obama’s bid for a second term.

Think back nearly a decade. Then-President George W. Bush was sagging in the polls and having trouble making headway on his agenda with a partisan Congress. Some voters were insisting he shouldn’t be in office. And the economy was sluggish.

Then came Sept. 11, and al Qaeda’s multipronged attacks on U.S. soil. A different America arose from the ashes of that tragedy. Bush’s approval ratings soared. Congress and the country came together, united by the attack. Bush went on to win a second term.

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After the attacks, Bush promised to catch bin Laden, “dead or alive.” It happened, just not as quickly as he wanted. The Bush I came to know as a White House reporter no doubt left office frustrated by his inability to deliver on that promise, but relieved that on his watch no further terrorist attacks had taken place here.


Obama will see a spike in his approval ratings, too, though nowhere near the 90 percent mark that Bush reached in the aftermath of the attacks. And the grace period won’t last nearly as long as it did for Bush.

Washington will come together, too. The bitter partisanship of the past year will give way to a period of comity. Alas, it will be all too brief. In a matter of weeks, Congress will be back to more of the same, bitterly debating the 2012 budget and the need to raise the federal debt ceiling. Work on other important legislation will grind to a halt, underscoring the fine line between government in action and government inaction.

But at this stage, any politician given the choice of role would rather play Obama than one of his potential Republican challengers. While they last, those soaring ratings will translate to bigger leads in pre-election polls. Such polls are largely meaningless this far in advance of a presidential election, except for one thing: Momentum translates into money. Without a front-runner for the GOP nomination, Obama already is raking in money. Now, with GOP contenders overshadowed by the bin Laden news, he’ll have the race largely to himself for a bit longer, perhaps into the summer, so the money will come in even faster.

The longer the nation’s feel-good moment lasts, the more difficult it will be for the eventual Republican nominee to catch Obama.


Much depends on the economy, and how it reacts between now and November 2012.

This recovery is fragile, and slow. Another attack -- an unpleasant thought, for sure -- would likely panic the markets. But, given the volatility in oil-producing regions of the world, even additional uncertainly might be enough to knock the economy off its moorings -- and put a Republican back in the quest for the White House. There are, at this writing, no “specific or credible threats” against the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. But the State Department has warned travelers of the potential for anti-American violence abroad, and radical websites are promising to avenge the death of a martyr. “We won’t cry today, but we will revenge,” one bin Laden follower wrote. “Men and women in America will cry.”

The bottom line: Osama bin Laden is dead. But little else has changed in the post-Sept. 11 world.