After ten years, two wars, and thousands of lives lost, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has been killed. The news came last night in an impromptu address by President Obama, in which he praised the American and Pakistani special forces who carried out the operation and declared that "justice has been done" for the victims of bin Laden's campaign of terror.
This moment has been cathartic for millions of Americans. New York City and Washington, D.C. saw large gatherings, including a massive one outside of the White House, where hundreds came to celebrate the president's announcement. That said, it's hard to say anything definite about the impact of bin Laden's death on global terrorism. Al-Qaeda is no longer the hierarchical organization we saw a decade ago, if it ever was; by this point, it has metastasized into an amorphous collection of independent cells with bin Laden as its symbolic leader. At the risk of overstepping my expertise, I'd be hard-pressed to describe this as anything but a symbolic victory.
Of course, symbolic victories are political gold, and President Obama is certain to benefit from the public's enthusiastic reaction to the death of bin Laden. In the end, I wouldn't be shocked if Obama saw his approval ratings bump past the 50 percent mark, a significant increase from his current approval rating of 46 percent. Conservatives are fond of placing Obama in the mold of Jimmy Carter (National Review once called the former president "Hope 1.0"), but this event should put an end to the comparison. As president, Carter never achieved this level of foreign policy success; his one attempt at covert heroics ended in tragic failure.
That said, supporters of the president should be mindful of how fragile job approval is, especially in the face of a poor economy. Comparisons between Obama and Carter might not hold, but comparisons between Obama and George H.W. Bush, like the one I made last week, are still apt given the circumstances. At roughly this point in his presidency, the first President Bush was well on his way to high approval ratings as a result of American success in the first Gulf War. Unfortunately for Bush, military victory was not enough to quell public discontent with a sour economy, a fact which would ultimately cost him a second-term in the Oval Office.
Likewise, Osama bin Laden's death does nothing to change the basic facts of Obama's political situation; economic growth is still slow, money is still tight, and unemployment is still high. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track, 39 percent said the economy has grown worse, and 57 percent disapprove of the way President Obama is handling it. Obama's post-bin Laden popularity boost will almost certainly dissipate in the face of widespread pessimism and economic anxiety.
Moreover, this isn't likely to have an effect on the 2012 presidential race. The core Republican argument against Obama is economic, not national security related, and it will resonate for as long as the economy is sour. The fundamentals of economic growth and employment will rule the day on November 4, 2012, and it's possible for Obama to lose reelection even as he touts his administration's success in killing the most wanted man in the world.
In the end, despite the fanfare and the celebration, bin Laden's death might not mean much to anything. It won't change terrorism as it exists, it won't change the underlying dynamics of Obama's long-term political problems, and -- in all likelihood -- it won't hasten our withdrawal from Afghanistan. For now, at least, bin Laden's demise is as much a relief for the victims of his attacks, as it is a spectacle for everyone else.
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