By Sam Youngman - 09/30/11 07:41 PM EDT
President Obama has enjoyed a string of marquee victories against terrorist networks, but voters' concerns about the economy are obscuring what would have been significant political wins just a few years ago.
The killing of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — a senior member of al Qaeda's leadership — in Yemen on Friday represents another milestone achievement in the U.S.'s decade-long war against terror, and it comes just months after Obama was able to announce that U.S. forces had killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Despite these successes, Obama has not enjoyed the kind of bump in approval ratings that President George W. Bush may have when national security dominated the political landscape.
While Obama polls well on national security issues, he continues to bleed politically when it comes to the economy, which as of now appears to be the issue sure to dominate next year's election.
Gallup had his approval rating at 39 percent on Friday and his disapproval rating at 52 percent.
“It’s seems extraordinary to me that the president’s policies over the past three years have managed to change the public’s perception that the greatest threat to the security of Americans comes not from combating terrorism, where he earned deserved success, but in the economy and unemployment, where his policies have yet to convince a significant number of Americans that we are safe," said Larry Berman, a political science professor at Georgia State University.
The threat of terrorism has clearly been eclipsed by growing worries about the economy. That change in political dynamics represents both a remarkable change in the perceptions of the national parties and a bittersweet problem for a president facing reelection.
In 2004, with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 still fresh and debates over the Patriot Act and prosecuting the war on terror dominating the election, Bush was able to defeat Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, by projecting strength on national security.
Seven years later, the Democrat in office is running strong on national security, but it might not matter on Election Day 2012.
Success in the war on terror is one of the few bright spots in the current administration.
Unfortunately for Obama, voters are far more concerned about the economy than the killing of high-value targets.
"Unless the unemployment rate drops, it won't matter in battleground states where the margin of victory will be determined by the state of the economy," Berman said.
But a number of Democrats think national security can be an area of strength for Obama as the Republican presidential field has struggled to articulate a consistent foreign policy following bin Laden's death and the Arab Spring.
"He just has to find a way to make it meaningful in the campaign – and the fumbling from both [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry and [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney has been encouraging," one Democratic strategist said.