Whatever "bin Laden dividend" President Obama is likely to enjoy will have an expiration date on it.
See also: Medicare in the crosshairs.
Obama's approval ratings jumped after he ordered a Navy SEAL raid that killed the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. But political experts say that will fade, as will any impact it has on his ability to solve questions closer to home, like how to cut the budget deficit and whether to change Medicare.
Obama's job approval ratings jumped 11 percentage points after the raid to 57 percent, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, and 9 percentage points, according to a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa who studies older voters, says bin Laden's death was especially important to older people.
"That's a very patriotic generation. The fact America was losing its reputation as the leader of the free world was starting to grate on seniors." Among 65-plus adults asked whether they approved or disapproved of President Obama's performance, for example, his rating changed from a 50-42 disapproval on April 1 to a 49-46 approval rating in the most recent Washington Post-Pew survey.
But plenty of Obama's predecessors can remind him of how fleeting the glow of victory is.
Glen Bolger, a partner with the Republican consulting firm Public Opinion Strategies, says presidents on average get a 13 percentage-point bump in approval ratings after a major national security event.
"Clearly he's gotten a bump, and it's a deserved one," Bolger says. "But with the economy and the deficit, the question is: How long will it last?"
Surges in presidential approval have an end date
On average, Bolger says, the increase wears off completely in about 30 weeks. That means Obama's bump is not likely to last long enough to affect next year's presidential election. The capture of Saddam Hussein bought a 15 percentage-point jump that was erased in seven weeks, Bolger says. For the Cuban missile crisis, it was 12 points and 40 weeks. The start of the Iranian hostage crisis meant an increase of 19 percentage points for Carter and lasted 30 weeks. President Bush had a stunning 35 percentage point jump after 9/11, and his ratings didn't go back to the previous level for 105 weeks.
If the economy is struggling come November 2012, that issue will trump bin Laden's death, MacManus says.
Older people are especially concerned about the nation's debt load. "They see the debt as being counter to economic recovery, and they don't see their children's economic future is going to be protected without closing the debt gap," MacManus says.
Seniors are mad at everyone about the nation's fiscal imbalance, but probably a little madder at Congress than Obama, MacManus says.
The Obama administration and lawmakers are in negotiations over how to stanch the sea of red ink that is threatening the country's credit rating. Congress must vote this summer on whether to raise the debt ceiling and borrow more money — something Tea Party Republicans are loath to do.
Vice President Biden is meeting with a bipartisan group dubbed the Gang of Six to find a compromise between Republicans who don't want tax increases and Democrats who want to protect spending programs including Medicare.
Bolger says Obama may have an easier time getting his nominations approved in the afterglow of bin Laden's death but won't have a sudden red carpet materialize for his ideas on Capitol Hill. "On the big stuff — budget, spending, taxes, I don't see the Republicans suddenly saying: 'You were right and we were wrong.' "
The budget battle is likely to be messy
Some Democrats have pushed for raising the debt ceiling without any budget cuts, but others agree with Republicans that there must be a trade-off of reining in spending. Republicans, too, have differences of opinions among themselves over whether to work immediately to overhaul Medicare. Republican leaders sent mixed messages last week over whether they would continue to press hard to remake the Medicare program.
"There's no consensus across parties and little consensus within parties. We are in for a pretty long brawl," Bolger says.
John Rother, AARP executive vice president of policy and strategy, says he expects congressional leaders and the White House to agree on some sort of budget savings in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Agriculture aid and food assistance programs for the poor also could be affected.
Rother says he expects some sort of change like a limit on the amount of the nation's debt as a percentage of the economy. But to get to a lower deficit, it's not clear which revenue increases or program cuts would be passed. "That's what matters to most people."
A major impact on the debate came not from bin Laden but from Standard and Poor's. The rating agency recently warned it will downgrade the United States' AAA credit rating unless Washington gets busy cutting the deficit.
"It wasn't just an academic report. It was an institutional player saying we looked at the situation and changed our behavior," says Mike Franc, Heritage Foundation vice president of government studies. "The markets are looking for a signal Washington gets it and are going to look for whether there will be a package of restraints on government [spending]."
Already, the idea of raising the debt ceiling without cutting the size of the federal government is off the table because of Wall Street's unease over the deficit, Franc says.
This may make serious defense cuts easier
A more literal "bin Laden dividend" could become part of the deficit debate now — a call to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan more quickly and save money on defense costs.
Franc opposes the idea but says a new dynamic will develop if a broader spectrum of lawmakers than just liberals starts calling for defense cutbacks.
Most Republicans oppose major defense cuts. But House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is pushing for an overhaul of the Medicare program that would give seniors vouchers to buy health insurance on the private market.
Lawmakers who held town meetings during the spring recess heard an earful on the topic. Democrats have seized on the issue to paint Republicans as endangering the safety net for older people, although the plan would be phased in and not affect people who already are at or near retirement.
"It's pretty clear senior citizens are concerned about the plan and Republicans have not done a particularly good job of getting out the message it doesn't affect anyone older than 54," Bolger says.
Medicare may be untouchable
Republicans had been arguing that entitlement programs like Medicare are growing at such a rate they will overwhelm the federal budget unless changes are made. But now Medicare is returning to its position as an untouchable third rail of politics, MacManus says.
"Nearly every baby boomer has seen someone elderly with medical costs that made their life savings disappear," MacManus says.
But Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation says seniors could be affected more by inaction on Medicare and the budget deficit than on changes to the program. If nothing is done and economic calamity hits the financial markets, he says, they would face soaring inflation and plummeting investment portfolios.
"This is one of those times the consequences of their negotiations could be calamitous or satisfactory," Franc says. "The markets are waiting and the world is watching."
Franc is optimistic that Washington will tackle Medicare and make major changes, because it's difficult to really address the deficit without touching Medicare.
But Rother expects Medicare will be pushed off until after the 2012 presidential campaign.
"The issue is likely going to go before the American voters — that's where it's going to get resolved, at the ballot box."
Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer and has covered politics and government in Washington for more than 20 years.
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