Politically, the killing should boost the president’s standing immediately, since he delivered good news and will certainly receive credit for the successful result.
Obama now has an extremely useful credential that he can use to deflect Republican criticism on foreign policy and to demonstrate his leadership and decisiveness, two qualities he has had trouble displaying.
I’m certain it isn’t by accident that in his Sunday night address, the president repeatedly emphasized his role in the killing, from directing the CIA to make the “killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaida,” to his determination that sufficient intelligence existed “to take action” and to the launch “at my direction” of “the targeted operation.”
But the bump in the polls that the president should receive is likely to be short-lived.
While the “sense of national unity” that the president referred to in his Sunday night statement may resurface again for a few days, there is little national unity about whether to raise the debt ceiling, to raise taxes on people earning over $250,000 a year or to curtail entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security for younger Americans. These questions, as well as unemployment, are likely to have a much bigger impact on the next election.
Of course, if the killing of bin Laden does benefit the president short term, it’s possible that he could use that uptick in approval to engage Republicans on domestic economic issues. But that’s far from certain.
I often emphasize the role of unexpected events in American politics. The killing of bin Laden is one such event. But until we get to Election Day in 2012 and are able to look back, we won’t know how many other unexpected events have had an effect on Obama’s political future.