Bin Laden's death will have little bearing on 2012

Now that Barack Obama's "Bin Laden bounce" has come and gone, the 2012 election will be won on domes

Back in May, with the 2012 election still over a year away, many were ready to cancel it and hand Obama another four years. People believed the assassination of Osama bin Laden sealed his already likely victory. There was one big problem with this conclusion: when election time rolls around and people review a politician's time in office, the negatives stand out while the positives seems to disappear.

Look at George H.W. Bush's short and sweet term.

In March of 1991, following the successful Gulf War, Bush Sr.'s approval rating reached an all time high of 87 per cent and remained relatively high for the rest of the year, according to a Roper Center Public Opinion Archive. Many of the most qualified Democratic nominees felt their efforts would be wasted against the popular president and opted out of the race, as Nate Silver pointed out in a New York Times blog. By the 1992 election, however, recession had crept in and Bush Sr.'s approval rating had fallen to 30 per cent. Bill Clinton won decisively.

The reason for this dramatic change in opinion is obvious: people forget. In the midst of economic hardship, people will forget a leader's accomplishments and the positive ways in which he has impacted the country.

What people remember is losing their job months ago and having no prospects of reversing their unemployed status. People remember inflation that makes it impossible to provide for their family. People remember the foreclosure of their house. People remember their taxes are at an all time high and getting higher every day.

This is why bin Laden's death will not determine the results of the 2012 election.

Yes, following the news that American forces had killed the wanted terrorist, Obama's approval rating increased from 47 per cent to 56 per cent in a Pew Research Center poll, a number still much lower than the response to Bush Sr.'s Operation Desert Storm.

A recent Gallup poll regarding the 2012 election, however, revealed that 39 per cent of US voters plan to vote for Obama, while 44 per cent are already willing to commit their vote to any GOP candidate - and this is still in the wake of bin Laden's death.

It seems the hype has already begun its decline. Gallup's most recent poll of Obama's job approval revealed the figure has fallen to 43 per cent. This suggests the 2012 election will not be ruled by foreign policy, and will instead be fought on domestic issues that affect voters everyday.

Granted the defeat of a sitting president is not the norm. There have been 35 elections in which an incumbent president has sought re-election, and 21 out of those 35 have been re-elected. Although victory over an incumbent president is somewhat unlikely, Obama's situation makes it no more unlikely than usual. These polling numbers paired with the 10 per cent unemployment, $4 per gallon gas prices, increasing healthcare disapproval are a sure sign that Obama is beatable.

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman