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Bump in polls presents Obama with opportunity, challenge

Following Osama bin Laden's death, the president faces pressure to push back harder against Republicans over government spending, debt and social programs. Bin Laden's death could also lead to a softened tone in Washington.

May 05, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Lisa Mascaro and Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — As President Obama enjoys a quick boost in his poll ratings following the death of Osama bin Laden, he and his aides are wrestling with how best to employ that newly acquired political heft and avoid the contrasting pitfalls of two predecessors, both named Bush.

In 2004, George W. Bush boasted after his reelection that he had new political capital and set about trying to revamp Social Security, an initiative that fell flat and cost his party dearly in the next election. His father, George H.W. Bush, soared to 90% approval in polls after the victory in the Persian Gulf War, then did little with his advantage and watched it fade until he lost his reelection bid.

Obama's aides, mindful of both examples, want to avoid overreaching or seeming to exploit Bin Laden's death for political purposes. At the same time, they face pressure from Democratic lawmakers and interest groups to use the president's stature to push back harder against Republicans during the continued standoff over government spending, debt and social programs.

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

Already, both sides have predicted that Bin Laden's death may lead to a softened tone in domestic political combat, especially as it relates to a looming vote over whether to increase the federal government's borrowing limit. But White House officials have not yet found a clear path forward.

Democrats, Republicans and top administration officials will meet on White House turf Thursday for budget negotiations. Congressional Democrats head into those talks with a "spring in their step," one strategist said.

Meanwhile, Obama is scheduled to visit the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York on Thursday. On Sunday, he will appear on CBS' "60 Minutes" for his first interview since Bin Laden was killed.

Obama's appearance Thursday will be tempered, with the president making no public remarks and meeting only privately with Sept. 11 survivors and first responders, out of concern, said one advisor, that he not "exploit" the moment.

On Friday, Obama gets back to lingering domestic woes. He will travel to Indianapolis to talk about jobs and the economy.

White House advisors hope Americans will "appreciate the leadership" on display in the Bin Laden operation and that the sentiment will translate into momentum for other efforts.

"There's always hope that a lot can happen in such a moment of unity," said one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss White House deliberations. "But you also want to be careful that you don't 'jump the shark' " — internal slang for overworking the message.

The first poll numbers arrived Wednesday with good news for Obama, whose ratings had been sagging. Support rose notably among Republicans and independents, and his overall standing reached its highest point since the summer after his inauguration.

Congressional Democrats hope this marks the arrival of bolder presidential leadership on the Hill and a return to the optimism of 2008.

But most Democrats have been circumspect, concluding that only sustained high presidential poll numbers would put the GOP on the defensive. The death of Bin Laden is a milestone, but the nation has not been "completely knocked off its axis" by the development, said Matt Bennett, a vice president at the moderate think tank Third Way.

"That's what it takes to change the chemistry here in fundamental ways," said Bennett.

Congressional Republicans are treading carefully, making certain to give the president credit and participate in the national pride. Aides said partisan temperatures had been lowered, making it easier to negotiate, but some have kept up their attacks on Obama's policies.

"Nobody should expect the success with Bin Laden to wipe out our differences," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

An early test of the post-Bin Laden mood comes Thursday, when Vice President Joe Biden hosts a congressional meeting on deficit reduction. White House officials said that if Republicans continued to insist on cutting the deficit through spending reductions alone, it would indicate that gridlock would persist.

Republicans counter that Democrats have spent weeks attacking the GOP budget plan, which seeks to eventually privatize Medicare, making any overtures now suspect.

Still, the president's team is privately optimistic that the Bin Laden operation gives Obama a lift in the short term.

"I'm hesitant to put this in political terms, because it was decidedly not a political decision," Obama political advisor David Axelrod said. "God knows what's going to happen between now and November 2012 that will change things for the better or worse politically from our standpoint. That's the nature of this work."

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

cparsons@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau and Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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