from The Water's Edge

Bin Laden’s Death Raises Obama’s Approval Ratings

May 3, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

Politics and Government

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.

An interesting thing about the rally-’round-the-flag effect is that the public sometimes rallies to the president even after failure. FDR’s ratings went up twelve percentage points after Pearl Harbor. Jimmy Carter’s popularity jumped thirteen percentage points after Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Ronald Reagan’s popularity rose eight percentage points after terrorists drove a truck bomb into the U.S. Marines Battalion Headquarters in Beirut in 1983. George W. Bush’s ratings jumped an astounding thirty-five percentage points in the aftermath of September 11.

So regardless of whether it is good news or bad news, Americans are more likely to support the president after big events. By the way, although pundits seldom talk about it, the public also tends to give higher ratings to Congress and the military during these situations. In short, rally effects are in many ways an expression of pride in being American.

Will Obama’s nine-point rally help him politically? Probably not much. To begin with, event-driven opinion rallies tend to be short-lived. George H.W. Bush stood at 89 percent approval in the polls in March 1991. He was a former president two years later. So GOP hopefuls still have reason to gather in Greenville, South Carolina this Thursday for the first official debate of the 2012 campaign season.

Not only are event-driven rallies typically short-lived, they often do not translate into approval of the president’s handling of specific issues. Indeed, the Washington Post/Pew poll finds only 40 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy.

That number isn’t going to scare Republicans into compromising with the White House on the debt ceiling, spending cuts, or tax policy. So partisan bickering and sniping on economic issues will continue. And that back-biting could hasten the end of the Obama bump.

More on:

Politics and Government