James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Mailbag: Do Americans Think Obama Has Shown He Is Ready for the 3 AM Phone Call?

by James M. Lindsay
May 5, 2011

Click here to view this video on YouTube.

My post on the nine-point public approval ratings bump that President Obama saw in this week’s Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll prompted Bill to comment:

NY Times poll released later same day has 11% bump for Obama.   I agree that this is likely a temporary phenomenon and his ratings and electoral fate will ultimately be based on bread and butter (and petroleum) economic issues.  His ratings in that area are still sickly. But would you agree that, unlike GHW or GW Bush, this event has answered fundamental questions about Obama’s capabilities as Commander-in-Chief, that could have a lasting impact on how he is perceived by the electorate?  I agree that this does not sweep aside earlier critiques of his broader foreign policy strategy, or lack thereof, but it does seem to answer the 3 a.m. question pretty definitively.  Interested in your views and apologies if you have already addressed this.

Different polls are going to give different bumps because of different sampling methods, different polling dates, and the like. Given that the typical margin of error in any individual poll is three-to-four percentage points, the difference between a nine-point bump and an eleven-point one across polls is pretty much a wash.

I should add that the numbers I quoted in my post for previous presidents were all Gallup numbers. So I wasn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. As luck would have it, Gallup released its poll on the Obama bump today. It finds a six-percentage-point increase. So if I were revising my original post for submission to a political science journal, I’d have to say that Obama’s bump was actually smaller than what I initially reported. But whether the bump was six, nine, or eleven points, the overall conclusion remains the same: Osama bin Laden’s death by itself probably won’t have a lasting impact on Obama’s overall political prospects.

The narrower question of whether killing bin Laden will lead to lasting reappraisals of Obama’s capabilities as commander-in-chief is a good and interesting one. I would expect it to change how many Independents view the president. They are the slice of the electorate most open to reevaluating him, and their growing dismay with his performance has been the primary driver of his declining ratings over the past two years.

But Sunday’s news won’t change assessments much among Democrats or Republicans. They have pretty firm views. Democrats already strongly support Obama, so bin Laden’s death just gives them evidence for their views. Republicans strongly dislike Obama, and while they may applaud bin Laden’s killing they will be quick to spread the credit around to the military and the CIA. A general rule of life is that people bend evidence to fit their preconceptions rather than overhaul their world view with each new piece of information.  So any compliments that the participants in tonight’s GOP presidential debate offer about Obama will likely be followed by potshots at his shortcomings. You have to tell your audience what it expects to hear.

But there is one clear political upside for President Obama with bin Laden now resting at the bottom of the North Arabian Sea. GOP presidential candidates will find it harder to persuade Independents, as Newt Gingrich put it, that “In the Obama administration, protecting the rights of terrorists has been more important than protecting the lives of Americans.” After all, the Navy Seals that Obama dispatched to Abbotabad didn’t read bin Laden his Miranda rights.

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