Monday, May 2, 2011

After Bin Laden, Should Republicans Be Afraid to Run Against Obama in 2012?

As discussed in a previous post, the elimination of Bin Laden is unlikely to change the kind of candidate Republican primary voters select. But will would-be candidates decide not to run, fearing Obama's reelection is inevitable? Should they?

Obama will receive a bounce in his approval ratings, and discussion of Bin Laden's death will consume media attention for some time. The Republican primary will "pause" while this happens. Some liberal journalists and political commentators will suggest Obama is invincible. As a result, it is possible some Republican candidates who were uncertain of whether to run will decide to pass. But some candidates will remember their history.

In 1991, the first President Bush won a smashing victory against Iraq in the first Gulf War. Many Democrats had opposed the war and were humiliated. Bush's approval rating jumped to 90%. The conventional wisdom was that Bush's reelection was inevitable. As a result, leading Democratic contenders decided not to enter the race.

A year later, of course, the situation had completely changed: Voters were focused on the weak economy and Bush's approval fell so low that a strange man named Ross Perot presented a serious challenge. Bill Clinton had been brave enough to enter the race in spite of Bush's earlier strength, and was rewarded with the presidency.

In the long run, Obama is probably no more likely to be reelected than he was before Bin Laden's death. Obama cannot be easily criticized as "soft" on counter-terrorism, but Obama's willingness to authorize predator strikes in Pakistan was one of the areas where Republicans had already given him credit. Republicans have instead spent Obama's term focused on attacking his domestic policy. Still, Obama should expect a reprieve from being characterized as a weak leader.

For awhile, at least. Bin Laden's death will encourage an ever-increasing segment of the Democratic Party (and the population at large) to demand an exit from Afghanistan. The removal of Bin Laden will not make this any easier for Obama to accomplish, however: Coalition forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban--which was never led by Bin Laden.

Thus, if Obama refuses to withdraw from Afghanistan, he will be criticized (especially by his base). If he tries to withdraw some troops and the military situation deteriorates, he will also be criticized. Perversely, it's not inconceivable that Bin Laden's death will, in the long run, present Obama with a political challenge instead of a benefit.

For the moment, no one knows how many of the Republican contenders are aware of this. If they lack judgment, they may be spooked out of the race. As with the Democratic contenders who opted out in 1992, they will regret it.