Monday, May 2, 2011

I Say Obama, You Say Osama, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Wow. What a difference a few hours makes in politics.

As a wise Democratic street fighter of my close acquaintance noted on Facebook early this morning, “I hate to allude to Ross Perot, but ... the giant sucking sound you hear is the wind exiting 80 GOP freshman Congressmen, who are contemplating an Obama approval rating of 91%.”

Is this wishful thinking, or sound political analysis?

Let’s look at the inexorable downhill slope that was George W. Bush’s Gallup Poll approval rating:

Bush’s approval had dropped near 50% on the day before the 9/11 attacks. In their immediate aftermath, they reached for the sky, topping near 90%. As Bush failed to produce the cooling body of bin Laden, permitted his escape at Tora Bora, and was ridiculed for declaring “Mission Accomplished,” that number began to drop until his invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American instinct to support the volunteer troops of a democratic republic pushed him back up to around 70% at the start of the ill-advised Iraq invasion. After events like Abu Grahib became public knowledge and the American people watched Bush’s understaffed occupation allow an insurgency to blossom, his approval dropped again to around 50% - low for a wartime President.

Following the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003, Bush saw a quick uptick to about 64%, a gain of 14% or so. It would not regain that point for the remainder of his term, and made only transient reversals of the overall downhill trend. So, which of the gains in popularity does Obama’s potential upswing most resemble?

Bush’s 9/11 leap of near 40% was a natural response to a national crisis, and probably can be largely attributed to a rally-around-the-flag sentiment, not unlike that enjoyed by President Carter in the immediate aftermath of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran. The 14% Bush jump in the aftermath of Saddam’s capture was impressive. While Saddam was never been popular in the United States, opposition to the Bush diversion into Iraq tempered that dislike among all groups except die-hard, fact-immune Republicans.

Osama, on the other hand, had a 97% unfavorable rating in an ABC News/Washington Post poll in late 2001 (I want to find the other 3%), and he never enjoyed a similar attenuation of that disgust. Any President could have had a live Osama given the Edward II treatment at Ground Zero without serious public blowback. If Bush got a 14% boost from catching Saddam, it stands to reason that the death of the undisputed culprit of 9/11 will give Obama a substantially larger boost. Given that the 90% Bush rating in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 probably represents an historical ceiling in Presidential “popularity,” and that Obama’s current approval rating, pre-Abbottabad, was about 46%, a figure in the mid-80’s is perfectly reasonable. Remember, while Obama has suffered some recent political wounds (a few, as I have noted, self-inflicted), Bush was toting a lot of political baggage on 9/10, and his numbers were not much better than Obama’s on April 30. If you watch (or watched) the visuals of cheering thousands in Lafayette Park and Times Square at 3:00 a.m. this morning, you will agree the mid-80’s figure is sensible.

This can be a game changer, for the entire arc of his administration, if Obama finds the wit (and the killer instinct so far lacking) to use it. I would dread this week at work, were I a fundraiser for Romney or Pawlenty. Or for the RCCC. While Bush’s meteoric rise in September 2001 was reflexive on the part of voters, Obama’s is going to be substantive, and merit-based. More to the point, it’s going to come at the expense of Karl Rove’s favorite bullet point since 2000: that Democrats in general, and Obama at the moment, are soft, and unwilling to pull the trigger in the name of national security. This morning, that talking point is sharing the same briny grave as Osama. Being substantive, it should be far more durable than Bush’s 9/11 boost - and that popularity spike was still at a healthy 69% on Election Day 2002. Remember, gentle reader, that the GOP scored a gain of two Senate seats and eight House seats that day, as well as gaining stealing the Alabama governorship.

From a policy perspective, the potential parallel to classical Athenian history is hard to resist. In the aftermath of the Athenians’ triumph over the Megarians for possession of Salamis, c. 600 BCE, they were experiencing grievous turmoil between their wealthy oligarchs, and their growing population of disfranchised workers, debt slaves and tenant farmers. Solon had been the hero of the recent Athenian victory over Megara, and like the Americans to Washington in 1788, the Athenians turned to Solon to arbitrate their differences. What Solon accomplished made a true single payer health plan look like small potatoes. Using his military popularity as a springboard, he abolished debt slavery (freeing thousands), reformed citizenship laws to allow immigrants to attain citizenship, redistributed the property of large landowners to small farmers, and gave the poorest workers, the Θήται, voting rights, effectively founding Athenian - and Western - democracy. While worried, I am hopeful that Obama has actually read his Herodotus.

From a practical perspective, we Democrats have opportunities from this morning’s good news. Our talking points in the weeks ahead need to make several facts clear to voters:

  • Bush and the Republicans pulled the Special Forces and other elite units out of Tora Bora in 2001, allowing Osama to escape. Obama sent the SEALs into Abbottabad.
  • Competence and smarts - increasingly a Democratic monopoly - are more effective than swagger and bullying bravado in maintaining national security.
  • While we certainly give due credit to the skills and courage of the military and intelligence personnel, without whom this could not have happened, any reasonable person has to give credit to the resolve, determination, and - try not to use this in your letters to the editor - cojones of the President, who rolled the dice, pulled the trigger, and engaged in any other positive metaphor applicable in the premises.

Should we use this for political advantage? One last time, I quote my acquaintance who was busy last night on Facebook. After some probable Dittohead chastised him for one of the earlier quotes, he responded:

Mr. XXXXXXX, I am touched by your gentle rebuke. I shall refrain from further political comment on this great national occasion - to the full and same extent that the Bush Administration and the Republican Party refrained from politicizing the war on terror in the 2002 elections, and painted everyone who questioned their competence as traitors and cowards. (insufferably smug grin)
Preach on, brother.


  1. I love the way the Republicans are saying Obama didn't kill him, a SOLDIER did. Like some soldier just woke up Sunday and decided to fly into another country and raid someone.