So Much for "Leading from Behind"

05/10/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2011
  • Krystal Ball Fmr. MSNBC host and Democratic congressional candidate

Since Osama bin Laden's death, the president's approval ratings have ticked up by about 6%. Pundits labeled this increase the "bin Laden Bump." Many of these same pundits have been quick to dismiss the gains as transitory. After all, President Bush's approval ratings climbed a similar amount following the capture of Saddam Hussein, but returned to their previous level after about six weeks. Following this logic, the death of bin Laden shouldn't have much of an impact on the 2012 presidential race.

I think that the bold leadership clearly demonstrated by President Obama in taking out bin Laden will have a significant impact on 2012 and may even prove to be a game-changer. The contrasts could not be any more favorable for the president. While Republicans spun a story about leading from behind, the president acted unilaterally and with courage. While Republicans sell gloom and doom and a possible debt default, the president sells optimism and resolve in the face of challenges. While Republicans push extreme Medicare reforms that alienate the senior citizens on whom their electoral success depends, the president has reenergized key constituencies. I don't want to overstate the case. The president's reelection is by no means assured, but the death of bin Laden almost certainly shifts the political landscape in Obama's favor.

The week before bin Laden's death, Republican strategists seized on an article in The New Yorker in which an aide described the president's foreign policy as "leading from behind." Republicans had already been working on pushing a narrative about the president's lack of leadership (which to me seemed a bit rich given their previous narrative about the president as a dictator shoving liberal policies down the collective throat of the American people) but be that as it may, the new narrative about a weak leader was just starting to get some traction. The "leading from behind" tagline was gleefully adopted. Here's William Kristol writing in the Weekly Standard:

"How do you defeat a leader from behind? With a leader from the front. All the Republicans have to do is nominate a real leader: a workhorse not a show horse; a steady hand not a flip-flopper; a profile in courage not in cleverness; a competent man or woman with strength and confidence in defense of liberty at home and abroad."

Here's my favorite quote from those pre-post bin Laden days:

"The crystallizing phrase 'leading from behind' may not be something you'll see on a sign at the 2012 Democratic convention, but it will almost certainly be in the acceptance speech of the nominee of the Republican party at its 2012 convention, and will be thrown in Obama's face during the presidential debates by his GOP rival, and will be the centerpiece of the critique of Obamaism going forward."

Knowing all that we know now, this quote almost makes me giggle. It seems so ludicrous in the face of the president's steely-nerves and bold action. Don't expect Republicans to give up on the narrative altogether. I've still heard plenty of attempts to paint this President as a weak leader. Now however, these arguments are easily rebutted. Here we'll try it out. Republican pundit: "The president is sitting in the corner of the room in the War Room photograph. Real leaders stand with purpose in the center of the room." You: "Yeah, but he killed bin Laden." I have a hunch that the latter point will impress Americans more.

In addition to the dismantling of a key Republican narrative, bin Laden's death has also reenergized key constituencies in the president's coalition. For all those concerned about whether young people would show up again to reelect Obama in the same way that they swept him into office, the throngs of 20-somethings joyfully celebrating our success in taking out bin Laden should provide some comfort. Again, I don't want to overstate the case, but anecdotally, young people were super excited about bin Laden's departure from this world. Polling also showed that independents were particularly impressed with the successful mission. In my home state of Virginia, there has been a marked swing toward the president following bin Laden's death. The president's lead against hypothetical Republican matchups in this critical swing-state has swelled. Against Mitt Romney, for example, Obama has moved from a 48-46 edge to a 51-44 lead. In matchups against Palin and Trump the president moved from a 19 point advantage to a 31 point advantage. While the president gains support among key constituencies, Republicans have been scurrying away from their proposal and subsequent vote to voucherize Medicare. It turns out that seniors are an important part of the electorate.

The flawlessly executed strike which led to the death of America's long-time nemesis has reminded Americans that we are in fact bad-asses. Any country that could produce Seal Team 6 is not to be messed with. I'm having trouble finding a definitive index of American swagger, but I have to think that we're feeling a bit more Austin Powers and a bit less Droopy Dog. The president's developing narrative about the "big things" that we have accomplished together as a nation and that we are capable of accomplishing again fits perfectly into this rekindled swagger. The Republicans' narrative of an impending fiscal calamity that they are bound and determined to force into existence, does not.

All this is not to say that the president's election is now assured. He still faces very tough challenges including $4 plus/gallon gas and stubbornly high unemployment (thanks in part to GOP intransigence, but that's another story). But the good news for Dems is that while President Obama's approval ratings on the economy haven't improved, voters still trust the president more than they trust Republicans. With an uninspiring stable of prospective GOP 2012 candidates and the knowledge that incumbent presidents win 70% of the time, I have to say that I like Obama's odds. In fairness, I liked his odds before the bin Laden bump. Now I really like his odds.