article

05.11.11

Obama's Victory Lap Will Be Short

The president has shot up in the polls after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Jack Germond explains why it won’t last until 2012.

The president has shot up in the polls after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Jack Germond explains why it won’t last until 2012. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

One of the many “first rules” of politics is that changing the subject is the best way to get out of trouble. President Obama is once again proving the point.

Only the sickest conspiracy theorists would suggest that politics was the motivating factor in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On the contrary, the political risks for the president were so horrendous they argued against it.

If the operation had failed, probably at some cost in American lives, the nutcases who accuse Obama of everything short of mopery would have had a field day. What can we expect from a president who isn’t a Real American! Stuff like that.

Everyone remembers the failure of Jimmy Carter’s attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran in 1980. That disaster in the desert reaffirmed the unjustified image of Carter as a weak and inept president ripe for defeat by Ronald Reagan a year later.

Except where American lives are directly at risk, foreign policy is largely irrelevant to Americans making political decisions.

There was a particular irony in the Carter situation. Only a year before those American hostages were seized in Tehran, Carter had spent several months brokering an agreement at Camp David between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. To those who knew what a difficult man Begin could be, Carter’s tenacity and strength of purpose were widely admired. The treaty still stands as the single most significant step ever taken toward peace in the Middle East.

But except where American lives are directly at risk, foreign policy is largely irrelevant to Americans making political decisions. Carter’s “reward” from brokering that treaty was a rise of a statistically insignificant single point in his approval rating in the Gallup Poll. The lesson in that president’s experience was that a landmark accomplishment was nothing; his opponent’s image as a political John Wayne was dynamite.

Today Obama is enjoying the political fruits of the risk he took in ordering bin Laden killed. His approval ratings had been in a steady decline, largely because of lingering economic problems and the cost of gasoline. Since the death of bin Laden, however, one poll after another finds more Americans showing their approval, reaching 60 percent in an AP survey out Tuesday.

And while the White House has been assuring everyone that there would be “no victory lap”—that would be unseemly—Obama has been doing just that, although perhaps more tastefully than some. His visit to ground zero, his emotional meetings with the families of 9/11 victims and with New York firefighters, his trip to Kentucky to thank the troops were all catnip for the television networks. Cable pundits who were burying him two weeks ago were marveling at this remarkable turn of events.

Finally he capped his week spending the full hour on CBS’ 60 Minutes—the television venue most prized by big league politicians and especially those trying to make a case to affluent independents. This is not an audience that would prefer Donald Trump trashing our culture on NBC.

Most to the point, the president has made it difficult, almost impossible, for his most extreme critics to continue braying about our effete and ineffectual (let alone foreign) president.

There is, however, a cautionary note in the experience of another recent president, George H.W. Bush. After promulgating the first war on Iraq in 1991, the one that was justified, Bush’s poll numbers reached giddy heights. His approval ratings climbed up to 70 or even 80 percent in some surveys, and Democrats who might have been considered formidable presidential candidates in 1992 ran for cover.

But a year later the voters were less sanguine about George H.W. Bush and, with help from Ross Perot, Bill Clinton defeated him. Americans proved once again that they have short memories.

When Barack Obama runs next year, they will be asking the most basic question in politics: What have you done for me lately?

Jack Germond has been covering national politics and Washington since 1960. He spent 20 years with the Gannett papers, then eight with the still-lamented Washington Star and more than 20 with the Baltimore Sun. He and his partner Jules Witcover wrote a syndicated column five days a week from 1977 through 2000, and four books about the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. Germond's memoir is called Fat Man in a Middle Seat—Forty Years of Covering Politics; he has just completed his first novel. He and his wife Alice live on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia where he enjoys watching the birds and playing the horses.