When “stuff happens” overseas, presidents almost always get a bump in their approval ratings. The average is 13 percent for 22 weeks, according to historical data compiled by Public Opinion Strategies. President Obama’s approval ratings increased by nine points in the 48 hours following the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
A lot of us here in the nation’s capital are speculating as to just how long the benefit to his numbers will last. Those who want to see the president reelected are chortling that he won a second term on Sunday night. Those who dread that thought are scrambling to give credit to the Navy SEALs, the CIA, George W. Bush and even Dick Cheney — actually, it is pretty much only Cheney who thinks he deserves it.
The credit goes to those who would have gotten the blame had this exercise ended in disaster — President Obama, who gave the order to “get him,” and those who gathered with the president in the Situation Room through the tense action. Most Americans get that, which is why the president’s job approval stands at 56 percent as I write this.
Reasonable, less partisan voices in this town note with interest the jump in presidential approval but question that it has staying power. Charlie Cook, one of the smartest political observers in the country, likens the killing of bin Laden to “a B-12 shot in the arm, or adrenaline, a great rush and a welcomed respite, but it is not a cure.” Charlie and others wisely opine that other issues will be more important in November 2012. They cite the economy and energy prices as issues that will overwhelm this transitory bump in the president’s poll numbers.
I can’t argue with that tactical analysis. If Bill McInturff and his team at Public Opinion Strategies are correct, and they almost always are, the uptick in the president’s numbers will fade by November of 2011 — a full year before the presidential election. But the point is not the polling “bump” the president is receiving; it is that the narrative has been changed.
I’m a messaging guy. My professional life has been devoted to changing the narrative — to putting issues and challenges in context. I believe that is happening now in American politics. The president’s mission over the next 18 months will be to continue to define the terms of the debate. If he is able to do that, he will most certainly win another term in the White House.
It starts with one of the most fundamental rules of politics: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. Even a lot of Republicans fret that they have a field of nobodies. If somebody doesn’t break from the pack, as Bill ClintonBill ClintonSyrian safe zones: Trump's best bet for refugee relief, regional stability Chelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC Former Defense chief: Trump's handling of national security 'dysfunctional' MORE did in ’92, or if somebody with more gravitas doesn’t get involved, President Obama has a clear path to reelection. But this president is not likely to trust his legacy to GOP malfeasance. He must assume there will be a “somebody” on the ballot he’ll have to worry about.
President Obama made a tough and risky call in sending the Navy SEALs deep into Pakistani territory. It was the right thing to do, and it turns out to be a politically smart move. Sending in the SEALs rather than firing missiles from afar, combined with his smack-down of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBipartisanship? It's possible when it comes to America's infrastructure. Anne Frank Center: Trump's anti-Semitism response 'too little, too late' Canada succeeded, and Sweden flubbed, in dealing with Trump MORE and the birthers last week, defines him as a tough American leader. That is how he must continue to position himself over the next 18 months. He can only do it with his actions.
This will not be a 2008 “feel-good” election. American voters want to know their president will do what must be done. President Obama must lead on energy and the economy. Reforming corporate tax rates and closing loopholes is one way to prove he’s doing both, and that seems to be just what the White House is planning now. The president has proven he can face down America’s foreign enemies in a calm, rational, almost cold-blooded manner. He must now do the same with threats here at home. If he does that, he’ll be somebody who has earned a second term and a place in the history books.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: email@example.com