Bin Laden Coup Won't Help Obama in Budget Fight

Byron York
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Posted: May 09, 2011 8:37 PM
Barack Obama believes he can leverage some of his killing-bin-Laden popularity into new power on Capitol Hill. "It is my fervent hope," the president told a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House shortly after the public learned of bin Laden's death, "that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face."

If the president is thinking about the most contentious issues on the Hill right now -- the budget and the debt ceiling -- he can forget about any new unity. "While the speaker is glad that Osama bin Laden has been killed, it won't affect his relationship (with the president) on any other policy issues," says a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "For example, I don't think anyone is more likely to vote for a debt-limit increase without spending cuts and other reforms because bin Laden is dead."

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for says much the same. Sending along McConnell's remarks from the Biden deficit task force meeting Thursday -- in which McConnell pushed Obama and Democrats to agree to spending cuts -- the spokesman added, "Please note that (McConnell) has not converted to a tax-and-spend liberal."

The fact is, Republican leaders do not believe Obama's victory over bin Laden translates into any greater clout on core issues like the budget. "It's a significant accomplishment, an important accomplishment," says a well-connected GOP strategist. "And Obama gets a boost in terms of this particular accomplishment. But the No. 1 issue in the country is jobs and the economy, and ultimately he's going to be judged by that issue."

There's no doubt that Obama is enjoying a boost from bin Laden's death. A Washington Post poll shows his job-approval rating jumping nine points after the news. A New York Times poll shows an 11-point spike. But Republicans believe the president's moment will be brief, and that any increased clout it might bring him will be limited to issues like the war in Afghanistan and other national-security matters.

GOP strategists point to December 2003, when President George W. Bush finally tracked down Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Just before that happened, Bush was at 50 percent job approval, according to the Gallup Organization. After Saddam's capture, Bush jumped to 60 percent. Then, a month later, he was at 49 percent, resuming what proved to be a long slide in popularity.

Of course, by that time the Iraq War, falling into stalemate, was becoming a drag on Bush. But Republicans are also looking at the case of the first President Bush, whose Gallup approval rating was at 53 percent in October 1990, just before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bush's approval soared after he took a strong stand against Iraq, hitting 83 percent in January 1991 and then 90 percent in early March, after U.S. forces won the first Gulf War. After that, it was all downhill. By early May, Bush was at 69 percent. By July, it was 59 percent. By late February 1992, a year after his Gulf War triumph, Bush had fallen to 39 percent.

Republicans believe Obama, whose job-approval ratings were in the mid- to high-40s before bin Laden's death, will be back where he was before long. Therefore, they see no reason to make any special concessions to him on strong GOP issues like the deficit.

But what about the polls that show Obama's numbers improving when people are asked to rate him on attributes like decisiveness and leadership? "Those are interesting discussion points, but ultimately it's about the outcome," says the Republican strategist. "The attributes are secondary to the outcome. Did he fix the economy? Did he get unemployment below a certain percentage? It's great that he's decisive, but look at unemployment and gas prices."

It's an unexpected turnaround in the relationship between Republicans and Democrats. For years, Republicans complained that Democrats did not place enough emphasis on the war on terror; polls through the Bush years showed Democrats caring far less about war-on-terror issues than Republicans. For their part, Democrats charged that Republicans, focused on terrorism, didn't pay enough attention to pocketbook issues.

Now, it's Democrats who are touting a national-security concern while Republicans are itching to return to economic issues. The bottom line is that Republicans respect Obama's success in killing bin Laden. But it's not going to mean any new power for the president on Capitol Hill.