James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

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

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

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, 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.

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Bin Laden’s Death Raises Obama’s Approval Ratings

by James M. Lindsay Tuesday, May 3, 2011
People cheer outside the White House on May 1 , 2011 after learning of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

People cheer outside the White House on May 1 , 2011 after learning of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday I noted that Osama bin Laden’s death should give President Obama’s approval ratings a boost as the country rallies ’round him. The Washington Post and Pew Research Center just released a joint overnight poll that confirms the point.

The poll puts Obama’s overall public approval rating at 56 percent. That’s up nine points since polls by the Washington Post/ABC News and by Pew last month. It’s also the highest approval rating the president has scored in either poll since 2009.

How does Obama’s “bump” compare with past presidents? Not terribly well. John F. Kennedy’s ratings jumped twelve percentage points after the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Ford’s rose eleven percentage points after the U.S. military attempted to rescue the U.S. merchant ship, the Mayaguez, and its crew. George H.W. Bush’s popularity increased by twenty-four percentage points in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

Obama’s bump is bigger than the one that George W. Bush got after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. Bush’s ratings went up only six percentage points.

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