GOP gives Obama his due, but says it's still the economy that matters

Watching action from Pakistan were Vice President Biden (left), President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (second from right), and members of the national security team.
Watching action from Pakistan were Vice President Biden (left), President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (second from right), and members of the national security team. (PETE SOUZA / The White House)
Posted: May 03, 2011

The Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden with two shots to the skull not only dispatched an archenemy terrorist, but they also silenced, for a moment at least, most of the harshest Republican criticism of President Obama as a weak leader.

Even former Vice President Dick Cheney, a hawk's hawk who had said Obama was naive on fighting terrorism, praised the Democrat on Monday. Americans waved flags, sang patriotic songs, and celebrated the end of the long hunt for the man who orchestrated the worst terrorist attack on the United States nearly a decade ago.

It seemed like a turning point for Obama, who just days ago felt compelled to put out his long-form birth certificate to fend off false assertions that he was not born in this country.

Obama's approval ratings and the percentage of voters saying he deserves reelection are certain to rise in the polls, political analysts and strategists said Monday, but the lift might not last long once euphoria over the psychological victory fades and voters focus again on the recession and high gasoline prices.

"He'll probably have a bounce for a month or so, and then something else will come along and it will dissipate," said pollster Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. "The fundamental issue in 2012 is the economy, and this won't have any effect on unemployment or gas prices."

It is true that, historically, presidential bounces from good news abroad can be transitory.

President George W. Bush saw a bump in his popularity after U.S. forces captured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December 2003, but that faded within months, and he had a close reelection battle 11 months later.

The approval ratings of his father, President George H.W. Bush, soared to about 90 percent after he defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in early 1991. The elder Bush still lost reelection in November 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton, during a recession.

In the latest Gallup tracking poll, conducted this past Thursday through Saturday, 46 percent of the 1,500 Americans surveyed approved of Obama's performance, and 46 percent disapproved.

Democratic strategist Garry South, however, believes that the raid that captured bin Laden is a "defining moment" that reassures voters about Obama and separates the president from a pack of potential Republican contenders who have little foreign-policy experience, just as he did in 2008.

"I think there have been questions in the minds of a lot of Americans ever since whether the president had what it took to be a strong and decisive commander in chief," said South, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif. "Those doubts are now completely wiped away. I'm trying not to be overly partisan, but Obama has done in three years what George W. Bush couldn't do in seven years with all his swagger."

South said that there was no guarantee the glow would last into next year but that he thought the GOP field would have been hard-pressed to beat Obama even without the bin Laden mission's success.

The Republican nomination campaign is starting late, and Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and reality-TV star who flogged the birth issue, has "sucked the oxygen" away from lesser-known candidates, he said.

Now the news from Pakistan has knocked Trump out of the headlines - but all the other candidates are in Obama's shadow as well.

Still, Obama has huge clashes coming with the GOP in Congress over the nation's spending and debt, including a vote to raise the limit on the federal government's ability to borrow. He is fighting to keep his health-care law from being dismantled and also faces struggles over how to pay for entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Ideological differences between Obama and Republican opponents on these issues are not going to melt away because of military success on foreign soil.

"I'm telling you, unemployment and $5-a-gallon gas are going to trump this tomorrow," said Sam Clovis, a conservative activist, business professor, and host of a talk show on KSCJ radio in Sioux City, Iowa.

"In my calls today, people said, 'OK, fine, but let's move along' to the economy," Clovis said. His audience was more concerned with restrictions on drilling for domestic sources of oil. "People are real upset," he said.

At least for a day, though, most Republican leaders were treading carefully, either crediting Obama or avoiding criticism of him as they praised the U.S. military.

"This victory is a tribute to the patient endurance of American justice," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican candidate for president, said in a statement. "I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Not long ago, Gingrich was arguing that Obama did not believe in American values.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also praised Obama, as did Trump, who said in a statement that he wanted to "personally congratulate President Obama and the men and women of the Armed Forces for a job well done."

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), an aggressive critic of the administration on spending, said: "I just don't think this should be a political issue. . . . We've had two administrations put a great deal of effort and resources into this. . . . I give President Obama full credit for pursuing it aggressively."

The truce did not last long, as one possible GOP challenger to Obama continued to attack his foreign policy. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told Radio Iowa that it was great that bin Laden had been killed but that Obama had handled uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria poorly, "and we're less safe because of it."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or

Read his blog, The Big Tent, at


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