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Killing of Bin Laden may alter dynamic of presidential race

The killing of Osama bin Laden gives President Obama a lift in the 2012 election and further roils a Republican field groping for focus.

May 03, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The killing of Osama bin Laden has altered the contours of the 2012 presidential contest, offering President Obama an unforeseen lift and creating turbulence within a Republican campaign that was already struggling for focus.

Now Obama faces a new and difficult maneuver: turning a national security triumph into progress on a totally unrelated front — the domestic economy, where high joblessness, a tepid recovery and near-record gas prices have left voters in a sour mood. Republicans, meantime, confront an even steeper stature gap between Obama and a field of potential rivals that even many in the GOP say isn't up to the task of defeating him next year.

The president, clearly eager to capitalize on a rare moment of national unity, called it "a good day for America." He drew attention to the patriotic crowds, many of them youthful, that had chanted "USA" at sporting events the previous night and spilled into city streets and college campuses across the country in celebration.

Photos: Osama bin Laden dead

"Today, we are reminded that, as a nation, there's nothing we can't do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we work together, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans," he said.

Obama drew on that euphoria, and delivered a plea for bipartisan cooperation, when he played host Monday night at a previously scheduled White House dinner for top Republican and Democratic members of Congress and their spouses. He said he had "no illusions about the difficulty of the debates that lie ahead" but expressed "fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride" to meet national priorities.

For now, the president heads into this year's main event in Washington — tough negotiations with congressional Republicans over spending and the national debt — in a strengthened position. But any advantage he gets will depend on how high his popularity rises, and how long it lasts.

"I think this is going to be very fleeting, I really do," said Donald Baer, communications director in the Clinton White House, because the hunt for Bin Laden had taken so long and "people have moved on."

Recent history offers another cautionary note. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush's popularity soared after the U.S.-led victory in the first Persian Gulf war. A year and a half before the election — exactly where Obama finds himself today — Bush's job approval rating stood at 76% in the Gallup poll. Obama's, by comparison, was 46% when he announced Bin Laden's death to the world.

Yet Bush failed to seize the moment. In his postwar speech to Congress, he asked lawmakers to pass a transportation bill. By the next year, an economically pressed electorate felt the president had lost touch with their problems, and unseated him.

Bush "disappointed all of us by not being more ambitious," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "The question Obama faces is the same one Bush faced: What do you want to do?"

Devising a legislative fix on gas prices — the nation's most immediate concern, polls show — would be difficult. At the same time, Obama is better positioned now to approach Republicans with a deal to cut the nation's deficit, said Weber, a Washington lobbyist.

"It would be good for the economy," he said. "It would be hugely good for the president, and it wouldn't be necessarily bad for congressional Republicans" who also will face the voters next year.

One group that might not benefit: Republican presidential candidates. As is often the case in politics, the good news for America and the president could hardly have been worse for the prospects of those seeking to defeat him.

Heading into a scheduled debate in South Carolina on Thursday night, they had little choice other than to salute the daring, and dramatically successful, military operation, and, in most cases, praise Obama's steely resolve in directing it.

In the short run, the GOP contenders are expected to tread carefully in critiquing Obama's leadership on foreign policy; in the longer term, though, public attention is expected to return to pocketbook issues. And the president will again be dealing with a slow climb out of recession and trillion-dollar deficits that are worrying a jumpy electorate.

Republican strategist Scott Reed said Obama's historic moment had widened the distance between the president and a field of Republican rivals seen as weak by many in their own party.

"Whenever the commander in chief can really be the commander in chief, that's great politics," said Reed, who managed the short-lived 2012 try of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. "But people are still hurting around the country, and there's a lack of hope and a lack of jobs and everyone's faced with the prospect of $5-a-gallon gas."

The Republican contenders are still attempting to escape the shadow of celebrity developer Donald Trump, whose flirtation with a White House run has left potential rivals struggling to gain attention.

Obama's expected boost in popularity is unlikely to make any fence-sitters more eager to get in. But a decision to run isn't likely to be determined by short-term developments, even one as momentous as this.

At the same time, the drama of the last 36 hours was a reminder that Obama's "low fortunes of a week ago are not permanent," said Weber, an advisor to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign. "Presidents have an ability to change things."

Photos: Osama bin Laden dead

paul.west@latimes.com

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