Why the End of Gadhafi May Not Help Obama

BY Gwen Ifill  October 21, 2011 at 4:52 PM EDT

Three years into his presidency, Barack Obama is turning out to be quite the tough guy.

Osama bin Laden is a bad memory. Anwar al-Awlaki – an American citizen no less – is gone. And now, thanks to U.S.-led support, Moammar Gadhafi, an ally-turned-pariah, is dead as well.

That wasn’t exactly a victory lap we saw in the Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon (“You have won your revolution,” the president declared to the Libyan people). But it was a reminder that the United States played an important role in Gadhafi’s downfall.


Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

At a time when nothing seems to be going right domestically for the no-longer-novice president, his presence on the international stage is looming ever larger. But how much does this help a president who is becoming so unpopular at home?

For part of the answer to that question, it helps to look back at examples of presidents who won the day on the international stage – specifically what happened in the wake of the deaths of two of the century’s baddest bad men – Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Last May, after the bin Laden killing, National Journal compiled a remarkable graphic charting popularity spikes that accompanied 14 separate international incidents – including the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on September 11.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush enjoyed a 35-point increase in his job approval ratings that lasted for 105 weeks. But when Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003, Bush’s 15-point popularity boost lasted only seven weeks. He still won reelection in 2004, but not because of a foreign policy bounce.

His father, George H.W. Bush got a 23-point popularity bump out of the launch of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that lasted for 41 weeks. But a sluggish economy – and a third-party candidate – cost him reelection in 1992.

And, depending on which polls you read, President Obama’s approval rating surged by as much as 11 points after bin Laden was killed, only to settle back to around 50 percent in short order. It has sunk only further since.

There is much dispute about whether such bounces are real and whether they last. Jimmy Carter’s popularity actually grew the longer American hostages were held in Iran beginning in 1979 – although not by enough to defeat Ronald Reagan in 1980.

So it is largely fruitless to wonder whether the grisly sight of Moammar Gadhafi being dragged through the streets of Sirte will help or hurt Barack Obama.

His would-be Republican contenders stayed mostly quiet amid news that a U.S. drone strike, a French war plane and, finally a vengeful bullet to the head killed Gadhafi.

And there is something unseemly in celebrating the death of a world leader – even if he was considered by his own people to be an unstable tyrant. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who traveled to Libya just this week, proved this Thursday when she was reported to have joked to a reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.”

The more significant numbers to consider as the primaries ramp up in earnest are the ones that continue to show that Americans remain more concerned about their own lives.

Consider:

Eighty-one percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

Nearly one-third of Americans think the economy has still not hit bottom, and will get worse.

And 52 percent of registered voters say if the election were held today, they would vote for someone other than President Obama.

With numbers like that, it appears the only way Moammar Gadhafi’s killing could provide a longterm help to the struggling Democratic president is if the late Libyan leader were alive – and on the Republican ticket.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.