Amanda Baptiste and a man wait for President Obama to make an appearance at a fire station in New York. It's unlikely bin Laden's death will affect 2012 elections.
Amanda Baptiste and a man wait for President Obama to make an appearance at a fire station in New York. It's unlikely bin Laden's death will affect 2012 elections. (ANDREW BURTON / Associated Press)
Posted: May 08, 2011

Anyone who thinks that Barack Obama is home free in 2012 just because he whacked Osama bin Laden would be well-advised to revisit 1992.

Eighteen months before that election, George H.W. Bush was assumed to be a cinch for a second term. He had just won the Gulf War by shoving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and his poll approval was in the stratosphere. It appeared that '92 was going to be a national-security election, and by tradition that was considered Republican turf. But in the end, voters didn't care about Hussein. They cared about the recession, and they booted Bush from office in part because he seemed to be out to lunch.

I cite '92 as merely a cautionary tale. It's nuts to think that Obama can win reelection simply because he has established his creds as a gutsy commander in chief. In all likelihood, the hit on bin Laden won't mean squat in the voting booth. Memories are short in ADD America, and, besides, the guy can die only once. The jobless are hurting every day.

Granted, Obama has reaped some political benefits. He made a tough call on bin Laden - choosing the most high-risk, high-reward option - and it paid off. Americans spanning the ideological spectrum bonded with one another. (Something worked, for a change!) Most notably, young adults, many of whom were traumatized teens on 9/11, were able to express some existential relief.

Obama also made it tougher for Republicans to tag him as "weak." Now he can rebuff those attacks in a single sentence fit for a bumper sticker: Obama killed Osama. In politics, shorthand is important: He did what George W. Bush failed to do. He decisively signed off on a meticulous can-do American mission - thereby trumping the smear artists who call him un-American. As David Frum, the ex-speechwriter for Bush, remarked the other day, while praising the bin Laden decision, "Here's hoping that we have at last seen the end of this ugly insinuation that there is something less than fully American about the black president with the exotic name."

Obama exorcised the Democratic ghosts. He didn't screw up - as Bill Clinton did during Black Hawk Down in '93, or as Jimmy Carter did when those rescue helicopters burned in the desert in '80. Much to the Republicans' dismay, there's no way they can rhetorically link Obama with the hapless Michael Dukakis, who looked like Snoopy during his infamous military tank ride in campaign '88. No, they can't say about Obama what Bush senior said about Dukakis: "I wouldn't be surprised if he thought naval exercise was something you find in Jane Fonda's workout book."

Quite the contrary, because none of Obama's prospective '12 rivals have substantive foreign-policy experience. The sole exception, if he chooses to run, is Jon Huntsman. But Huntsman earned his spurs as Obama's ambassador to China; working for the enemy might not be an asset in the Republican primaries. And the guy who's currently most coveted by the Republican establishment, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, is so unschooled on issues abroad that when a reporter asked him the other day whether he was ready to debate Obama on foreign policy, he replied: "Probably not." (Give Daniels points for candor; a Republican is never supposed to cop to such a weakness.)

After bin Laden's death, even a Republican strategist and former Marines intelligence officer, John Ullyot, insisted that Obama had armed himself with "a very quick and powerful talking point right up to the 2012 election." But I question that. Obama has received a predictable poll "bounce" - depending on the survey, his job approval has jumped somewhere from six to 11 points - but nothing can erase a moment of good feeling faster than ongoing bad vibes.

What zapped the senior Bush, in the aftermath of the glorious Gulf War, was the perception that he was insufficiently attentive to the citizenry's economic anxieties. I remember talking with New Hampshire voters on the eve of that state's primary, in early '92, and none of them mentioned Hussein. All they talked about was the joblessness and the empty storefronts in town. The commander-in-chief hero of the Gulf War was so empathy-deficient that when he stumped in New Hampshire, he read a phrase directly from his index card: "Message - I Care."

Ron Kaufman, who served as the senior Bush's political director, reminded the press the other day: "My guy took down the Berlin Wall and won the Gulf War, but it didn't matter. . . . This [2012] election is about three things: jobs, houses, and cars."

He's right. We're all pleased that bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, but voters won't be indulging in triumphalism 18 months hence if people are still out of work, and homes are still being foreclosed, and pain still persists at the gas pump. I'm not suggesting that '12 will be a guaranteed reprise of '92 - for starters, Obama is far more domestically engaged than Bush senior ever was - but all it will take, to make the race competitive, are a few bad job reports.

The April report, released Friday, was somewhat bullish. Private employers created 268,000 jobs, the biggest monthly increase in five years, and it came despite the high gas prices. But because more jobless people started looking for work, the jobless rate upticked from 8.8 percent to 9 percent. Republicans will make use of the latter, and renew their calls for deficit reduction and deep spending cuts. In other words, they're not going to cede their domestic issues just because the president has scored a big win overseas. Unless his poll bounce becomes permanent, our polarized domestic politicking won't change a whit.

Indeed, the big debate in 2012 won't be over how we should fight the war on terrorism abroad; it will be over the direction of the economy and the role of government at home. In other words: Osama who?

E-mail Dick Polman at


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