OBL and Public Opinion

May 2, 2011 4:38pm

On the public opinion piece of the Osama bin Laden story, a few data points follow: 

While some bump for the president is entirely possible, how big it is and how long it lasts is an open question. Immediately after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 we saw a 10-point boost in approval of George W. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. Some other gains were not immediate, but came in the weeks that followed Saddam’s capture – Bush’s job approval rating gained 6 points, and the sense that the war in Iraq was worth fighting gained 7. 

Still, response to Saddam’s capture was notably sober overall; vast majorities said major challenges still confronted the United States in Iraq, and there was no advance in the sense that the war had contributed substantially to the long-term security of the United States. The economy continued to trump as the nation’s top problem. And over the next two months approval of the president, and views on the war, subsided to their pre-capture levels – or lower. 

That said, whatever Saddam was, from the U.S. perspective he was no OBL. 

It’s noteworthy, too, that Obama even before this development had been comparatively well-rated for handling terrorism. In an AP poll in late March, for example, 61 percent of Americans approved, well above his ratings on a range of other issues – e.g. health care, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, immigration, the deficit and, especially, the economy. His weaker ratings on these issues show his challenges ahead, regardless of this particular success. 

Other data suggest that the killing of bin Laden will be not only welcome, but a surprise; the long time that has passed since 9/11 had sapped public confidence that he would in fact be killed or captured. In a CNN/Gallup/USAT poll in September 2004, 66 percent of Americans called it very or somewhat likely he'd be captured or killed. By last September just 30 percent still thought so; 67 percent called it not too likely, or not at all likely. 

There also had been, with some variation, a decline overall in the American public’s view, from 2001-2006, that it was necessary to kill or capture bin Laden for the war on terrorism to be a success. Initially, in ABC/Post polls in November and December 2001, 64 percent said so. This subsided thereafter, other than a blip in 2003, and in our last measurement on it, in September 2006, 45 percent – fewer than half, albeit a substantial number – said it was necessary to get OLB for the GWOT to succeed. 

Finally there’s the perspective in Muslim nations. Pew Global today reiterates the lack of support for bin Laden in the Muslim world, generally down sharply from 2003 to present. In our own six national surveys in Afghanistan from 2005 to present, moreover, anywhere from 87 to 93 percent of Afghans have expressed an unfavorable opinion of bin Laden (93 percent last fall, including 73 percent “very” unfavorable), vs. 6 percent favorable. And in Yemen (bin Laden’s ancestral home), a recent poll for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors checked views not of bin Laden, but of al Qaeda overall: 84 percent unfavorable, 16 percent favorable. 

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