How Obama Deflated his bin Laden Bounce
President Obama was right when he told an interviewer from a Miami Spanish-language station that the death of Usama bin Laden didn’t guarantee his re-election. But he didn’t tell the whole story.
The more complete answer would have been, “No, but it might have.”
There is, of course, no such thing as a guarantee 18 months before an election, but the president’s 2012 prospects would be looking a lot better two weeks on if he and his team had done a better job of managing the post-killing national afterglow.
The political dividends from a positive event are always more fleeting than those of a tragedy. Killing bin Laden looks wholly positive to the American electorate, so voters feel excused in asking “what’s next” sooner than they would in the event of bad news. The ultimate example is 9/11 when Americans rallied around George W. Bush in a way unknown in modern political history. Contrast that with the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, which brought Bush only a fleeting respite from a downward approval arc.
Especially given the sclerotic state of the economy and other pressing foreign policy concern, Obama had a very limited time in which to extract the maximal political benefit from the killing.
And in this information-soaked society, the duration of good-news bumps will get shorter and shorter. Obama and his team often lament the hurly-burly that is the 24-hour news cycle, with particular scorn for cable news. But perhaps the reason that the White House complains so much about the pace of news is that they often fail in their efforts to exploit it.
The administration splurped out a flood of details in the 24 hours after the mission was revealed. Part of this was no doubt euphoria, but another part was trying to attach Obama as intimately as possible to the event.
In retrospect, the administration must now sorely regret the erroneous information they put out by announcement and leak in the celebratory first days. Not only did the eventual retractions, corrections and confusion prematurely reduce the euphoria of the moment, but they also mitigated what should have been a time of universal acclaim for the administration. The confused narrative at the White House stood in stark contrast to the precision of the men who did the killing.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates showed his pique at the botched communications effort while talking to Marines this week about the dangers now faced by Navy SEALs as a result of their involvement.
"Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday, the next day," Gates said.
So not only did the early information deluge hurt the White House politically, it managed to put an Islamist bounty on the head of every SEAL. I pity the jihadist who goes SEAL hunting, but a little more discretion would have been better for the commando community.
Another problem with the early data dump is that it made it harder to rein in disclosure later on. The White House was eager to release a Situation Room photo that showed the president with steely eyes trained on the mission (and Hillary Clinton looking either aghast or allergic), but less sanguine about releasing a picture of bin Laden’s corpse or the video of the SEALs daring exploits. The leakage and releasing of the first days set a new threshold for such an action, that it made it hard to turn off the spigot once officials realized the damage that was being done.
A fortnight later, the White House would no doubt be much happier with a mysterious effort than one ground down by details. For instance, is bin Laden’s scalp more or less valuable now that we know the grubby details of his squalid life. Bin Laden getting blown away in his underwear at a dirty, polygamous pad in Abbottabad complete with a porn stash makes a good ending to a Schwarzenegger movie, but it doesn’t have the same Tom Clancy, cloak and dagger feel that would have been preserved if the White House had instead offered a series of arched “no comments.”
But nothing did more to deflate Obama’s bin Laden bounce than the president’s own moves. His decision to try to convert a narrow surge in popularity based on terrorism and foreign policy to the issue of illegal immigration may go down in political history as an all-time presidential fumble.
Obama handled the first week nicely. His trip to Ground Zero was respectful and his visit to Ft. Campbell was an appropriate celebration of the men who did the job. But when Obama went on a political trip to Texas, it seemed to come out of left field.
Rather than consolidating his new esteem on foreign policy, Obama rushed to convert his new momentum to an unrelated, divisive issue. Heading to the border to mock Republican ideas on border security and then to use the killing in a fundraising speech immediately reminded voters about Obama’s least appealing tendencies – harsh partisanship and a scolding demeanor on policy.
Instead of building on the budding confidence of Republicans and conservative independents, Obama immediately tested it by taking political potshots on an issue that reveals some of the deepest fissures in the political pediment.
Obama has struggled for two years because he failed to solidify the good feelings that followed him into office. He seems to have done the same thing with his opportunity to reboot his presidency.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.