Shooting Osama won’t save Obama

Is it tawdry to ask whether Barack Obama will benefit politically from the killing of Osama bin Laden? I think not. In fact, that’s the first question many have asked me since the news broke. It’s a question that political professionals should try to answer for political novices, because they probably will get the answer wrong on their own, assuming, incorrectly, that this constitutes a huge political victory for the president. The correct answer is that the calculus of pluses and minuses for Obama adds up to a null set, at best.

Just to make clear, quickly, that it’s not all for Obama’s good, ponder the orgy of patriotism that erupted outside the White House gates Sunday night. All that flag-waving, chest-bumping, fist-pumping and USA-chanting looked like heaven to the Lee Greenwood crowd, but I suspect that the Joan Baez cotillion of the liberal wing of Obama’s party was aghast. Gaudy patriotism in the wake of covert, cold-blooded violence is likely to have offended the tie-dyed crowd. Even the president’s own careful remarks came off like the controlled giddiness of a seventh-grader in speech class describing the big fish he caught last summer, so the pacifists who wanted to close Guantánamo and bring the troops home by electing Obama were steaming. Their social worker let them down again by going native. Once again, this president is alienated from his base, and at some point there is going to be an accounting for that.

ADVERTISEMENT
In particular, Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo is going to become the catalyst for liberal angst to explode. It’s just a simple broken promise by the president. He cannot ignore it. Either the president will lurch left to try to repair the damage, forgetting that Guantánamo’s “tortures” provided the clue that eventually led him to bin Laden, creating the specter of his being a hypocritical opportunist when it comes to Guantánamo, or he’ll stay the course in Cuba and further alienate his base while confirming that he’s a promise-breaker. Write it down. The chickens will come home to roost at Guantánamo. It’s a lose-lose proposition for the president and his reelection.

Osama’s execution is also bad news for Obama because it eventually takes one big issue — national security — off the table for the rest of America as we decide whether the president deserves reelection. While I will argue below that good news doesn’t have the staying power or persistence over time that bad news does, the simple contradiction of this news, that a pacifist president watched as his orders for justice were administered on a Muslim despot, is compelling enough to convince doubters that Obama is “good enough” to be commander in chief. He’s no longer a pacifist dilettante whom we should run off. Now he’s got a kill notched in his belt. Unfortunately for the president, this frees up the public to concentrate elsewhere, on their most important concerns, things like the economy, jobs, gasoline prices and other day-to-day cares where the president’s belt has no notches.

Even if we were to set aside all these potential downsides of the bin Laden killing, the positive benefits for any politician, even one as precocious as Obama, would be short-lived. In America, we just don’t have much of an attention span any longer. In just six weeks, this event will be buried deeply in the landfill of our minds, occupying space with the TV show we laughed at, the sympathy we felt for tornado victims, the game our team lost in the ninth and a lot of minutiae, but mostly we’ll think about the news of the day. We won’t think back to 5/1 like 9/11. Good news evaporates. Bad news hangs around a lot longer. You’ll see.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.