WASHINGTON -- With the killing of another major terrorist leader in Yemen today, President Obama is burnishing his credentials as a strong leader on national security.
The question for his re-election campaign next year is: Will it matter?
It was a Democratic strategist, James Carville, who coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" as his candidate, Bill Clinton, took down George H.W. Bush less than two years after Bush led an international coalition against Saddam Hussein.
Today, Democrats freely acknowledge Obama's circumstances are similar. "He's done better in counterterrorism than he has in economics," says former congresswoman Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The economy is dominating the fledgling 2012 presidential race, and Obama is suffering as a result. His job approval rating was 42% in the most recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, and it was 39% in today's Gallup tracking poll.
Voters give him his highest grades on combating terrorism — by a 63%-33% margin in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in May, after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The results were almost the opposite on the economy: 37% approved, 60% disapproved.
Bin Laden's death briefly boosted the president's overall ratings above 50% in Gallup's polling. That was the highest he had risen since November 2009. But it didn't last long.
No one expects the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki to have even that brief effect. Few Americans had heard of the American-born terrorist, whose teachings influenced U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, and Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit later that year.
The killings even could hurt Obama's re-election if they make Americans feel safer: They could make terrorism less of a concern compared with the economy.
Still, several lawmakers and experts interviewed Friday said the record Obama is building on national security should help him with the two words Americans want most from their president: strong leader.
"People want their president to lead, no matter where they are philosophically," says Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "If you look at his policies, whether you're Republican or Democrat, he's done well in this area. We're safer because of his decisions."
Former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama benefits from the improved ability of the U.S. defense and intelligence communities to identify, locate and eliminate terrorist leaders. "It will accrue to the president's benefit, because it does show progress," he said. "This happened on the president's watch, and he deserves credit for that."
Republicans such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter King and former U.S. attorney general Richard Ashcroft credited the president for the latest killing, just as Republicans did after bin Laden's demise. "The president has done the right thing here," Ashcroft said on Fox News.
If nothing else, says Tufts University's Richard Eichenberg, an expert on public opinion and foreign policy, Obama's success removes a perennial Republican argument: that Democrats are weak on national security.
In fact, Eichenberg says, "it has the potential to highlight the lack of experience that the Republicans (running for president) have on national security issues."
Those candidates, in particular former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, do have experience on economic issues. When the discussion returns to the economy, Harman says, Obama should be able to argue that a safer country will help.
"More homeland attacks in America," she said, "will definitely be bad for business."