Yes, of course there are more immediate and possibly more substantive matter to address in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of US Special Forces. But it’s legitimate to ask about the political effect of last night’s news, and I think Nate Silver’s answer is reasonable. As I said this morning, the serious economic and opportunity problems in this country won’t go away simply because Osama bin Laden is no longer determined to strike inside the U.S.. But I think those claiming that any gains Obama may pick up from his military and intelligence triumph will ultimately be as illusory as George H.W. Bush’s boost after the completion of the Gulf War in 1991 are missing three important differences.
First, the Gulf War was a fairly conventional war, but it didn’t end in a way that for most (other than Kuwatis) felt particularly satisfactory. After spewing ridiculous propaganda about how he was the next Hitler, Saddam was allowed to remain in power. Yes, Kuwait was liberated, and over time the Kurds in Northern Iraq were able to secure a modicum of security and political freedom. Not invading in to the heart of Iraq and trying to depose Saddam was also the strategically sound thing to do. But if a figure is supposedly as evil and dangerous as Hitler, it’s hard, over time, to understand why he was left in power, or whether it was worth it to the United States to go to war. And Saddam didn’t just remain in power, his persistent taunting of Bush (and subsequently Clinton and then the younger Bush) undermined any triumphalist satisfaction that existed at the conclusion of that war.
There isn’t an obvious and easy answer for Obama on how to end the poorly named and conceived “Global War on Terror.” Nevertheless, Obama will now benefit from something that eluded the elder Bush: the demise of the villain. We now enter in to a harder era of conceptualizing terrorist threats to United States, because there isn’t the single evil villain who is the face of danger. It’s possible that we could again suffer the kind of devastating attack bin Laden launched against us on 9-11, which could be politically devastating to Obama. But in the absence of some horrific reminder that terrorism doesn’t stem from a single personalized enemy, for many it will feel like the conclusion of the war against bin Laden. The Saddam book never really closed for George H.W. Bush. The Osama bin Laden story just reached The End.
Second, the Gulf War coincided with a precipitous drop in the economy. Saddam invaded Kuwait in August, 1990. His forces were expelled and open hostilities ended at the end of February, 1991. The US experienced a recession that almost exactly overlapped that period, but as with most recessions, unemployment was a lagging indicator. After hovering just under 11% in the early eighties, unemployment had fallen below 7% in 1986, and for the two years prior to the start of the Gulf War it had hovered between 5.0% and 5.5%. During the Gulf War it increased to 6.6%, and over the next fifteen months it kept on rising, eventually reaching 7.8% in June 1992. Thus, Bush’s success in the Gulf War was followed by worsening economic conditions, and unemployment in particular got much worse after the war.
Unemployment now is worse than it was at any point during the elder Bush’s administration. But unlike with Bush in 1991-1992, the trend lines for Obama are going in the positive direction. In fact, the trend lines look somewhat similar to what happened at the same point in Reagan’s first term. The March 2011 unemployment was 9.2%. At the same point in Reagan’s term it was 10.3%. By October 1984 unemployment had fallen to 7.4%. Unemployment may not fall to 7.4% by next October, but it’s the direction and sense of whether things are getting better or worse that matters the most politically. Bush’s war triumph was followed by worsening unemployment. It’s more likely that Obama’s triumph will be followed by improving job conditions.
Finally, there’s the nature of the villain. Saddam Hussein didn’t attack the United States; indeed, he had been the recipient of U.S. support in his war against Iran. He had to be cast as an enemy, even created as one, because invading a tiny oil state run by a royal family doesn’t generate a visceral hatred in the hearts of Americans. Osama bin Laden murdered thousands of non-Americans around the globe and arguably posed a greater risk to non-Sunni Muslims than he did Americans. But what matters in terms of Obama’s domestic political prospects is that bin Laden murdered Americans overseas, and he murdered several thousand Americans in our nation’s capital and in the heart of our largest and most iconic city. He didn’t have to be cast as a villain. He was a villain, and Americans aren’t wrong in exulting in his demise. Most Americans didn’t have the same fear and anger at Saddam Hussein—who again, wasn’t completely vanquished in the Gulf War—that they had against Osama bin Laden.
As I said, presiding over the location and killing of Osama bin Laden isn’t a panacea for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. And probably a third of Americans will disapprove of everything Barack Obama ever does. But before people say “this will pass, just like George Bush’s support after the Gulf War” are probably just as wrong as anyone who says bin Laden’s death ensures the reelection of Barack Obama.