05/09/2011 10:58 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2011

It's Still the Economy, Stupid

The contrast could not be sharper. There was President Obama, basking in the victory glow of the raid that took out Osama bin Laden. And there were five hapless Republican presidential candidates trying desperately to get noticed at the first debate of the 2012 campaign in South Carolina. The winner, according to a focus group conducted for Fox News, which sponsored the debate: Herman Cain. Who? Exactly.

More good news for President Obama: Job gains in April were better than expected, which reassured the markets. "This proves how resilient the American economy is and how resilient the American worker is and that we can take a hit and keep on going forward," the president said. Oil prices fell, too, and the effect may soon be seen at the pump.

More bad news for Republicans: When they went back to their districts last month, they got an earful from angry constituents about the House Republican plan to privatize Medicare. Republican leaders appeared to waver on whether they would continue to press for the plan, which stands no chance of passage by the Senate. Now Republican leaders say the Medicare plan "has been and remains the Republican position." But rank-and-file GOP lawmakers are getting nervous about defying voter sentiment.

So is President Obama's reelection now assured? Well, no. Not even the post-Osama polls showed that.

The CNN poll taken the day after the raid asked registered voters whether, in the 2012 election, they would vote for Obama or not. The result: 46 percent would definitely or probably vote for Obama and 51 percent would definitely or probably not vote for him. Those numbers are nearly unchanged from the January results (47 percent for, 51 percent against).

Obama's job approval ratings did go up. Four different polls showed his numbers rising above the 50 percent mark for the first time in months, to an average of 54 percent. But that kind of bounce does not usually last long. The Gallup poll showed George W. Bush's rating jump to 63 percent after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. By May 2004, it was back below 50.

The closer you get to the issue of terrorism, the better Obama looks. In the New York Times/CBS News poll, Obama's rating on handling the threat of terrorism went up 21 points. Afghanistan: up 17 points. Foreign policy: up 13 points. Overall job as president: up 11 points. The economy: down 4 points. Which issue matters most in a re-election campaign? The economy, stupid.

That does not mean the elimination of Osama bin Laden will be irrelevant. What it does is change the perception of President Obama. He has passed the commander-in-chief test.

Remember Hillary Clinton's "3:00 a.m. telephone call" ad in the 2008 primaries? "There is a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote decides who will answer the call. Whether it's someone who knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world."

Obama has now proved he is tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.

The impact of the Osama raid is likely to be that much bigger because it challenges the stereotype of President Obama. In the 2008 primaries, he was the "NPR Democrat" -- thoughtful, complex, "All Things Considered." Hillary Clinton was the populist. She got the white, working-class vote. He got the educated, upper-middle-class professionals. Which, together with the black vote, enabled him to win with a bare majority.

The view that President Obama "is a strong and decisive leader" had been declining steadily in CNN polls from 80 percent when he took office in 2009 to 53 percent last month. Now it's jumped to 58 percent.

In some respects, the raid to take out Osama was a very un-Obama move. It was bold. It was risky. It was tough. It was decisive. It was more like something George W. Bush would do. In other respects, it was very much an Obama move. It was carefully planned. It was methodical. Obama himself chaired five meetings of the National Security Council to organize the attack.

According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the probabilities of success were systematically calculated: "Several assessments concluded there was a 60 to 80 percent chance that bin Laden was in the compound." One terrorism expert put the chance of success at 40 percent, but added that was "38 percent better than we have ever had before."

Bush was famous for making gut decisions. A close Obama associate told the Financial Times, "Nothing is from the gut. He is very disciplined."

Will Obama's triumph in Abbottabad be sufficient to guarantee his re-election? No. But it was necessary. In 2008, John McCain ran an ad that used excerpts from the Clinton "3:00 a.m." ad. Republicans will not dare try that in 2012.