Past Presidents' Military Successes Meant Brief Gains In Polls

May 3, 2011
Originally published on May 3, 2011 7:14 pm

Two new polls released today show President Obama's approval numbers getting a bump from the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Sunday by U.S. special forces.

Other presidents who made bold moves against targets around the world have seen their approval rating benefit – in the short term. But such events have rarely done much to bolster the president's long-term standing or ensure re-election.

President George W. Bush saw his approval rating leap after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in December, 2003. In subsequent months, however, the conflict in Iraq dragged on and the president's approval numbers sagged. He remained near 50% through most of the year and was narrowly re-elected in November 2004.

The 2004 ratings for George W. Bush represented a long fall from the 90% approval in the Gallup Poll he had in the first weeks after the terror attacks of September 2001, when he invaded Afghanistan to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of those attacks.

His father, President George H.W. Bush, also saw his approval number hit 89% after the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But the elder Bush's approval number slid steadily as recession set in later that year, and he received less than 40% of the popular vote in his re-election bid in November 1992. On a smaller scale, the first President Bush saw his polling improve temporarily after he invaded Panama in December 1989 to seize its dictator, Antonio Noriega, as a drug trafficker.

Similarly, Bill Clinton, the president whose two terms separated the two Bush presidencies, saw his approval number spike when he sent cruise missiles into Afghanistan in the summer of 1998 retaliating for bombing attacks at two U.S. embassies in Africa. The missiles were aimed at Al Qaeda camps in that country. But that increase, too, was short lived.

The public tends to reward rather than resent bold action by the commander in chief, even if the results are bad.

Jimmy Carter got a small boost in public esteem from a botched attempt to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Iran in early 1980. The Americans were captured in the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the 1979 revolution against the Shah. The commando raid intended to free them was aborted at a desert refueling stop, where eight members of the force were killed in a collision between two aircraft.

The "Desert One" debacle would eventually become part of the indictment of Carter's presidency, but in the initial hours and days it represented at least an effort in the midst of the frustrating hostage standoff. Carter lost his re-election bid in November 1980 to Ronald Reagan, on whose Inauguration Day the hostages were released.

And nearly 20 years earlier, in the first months of his presidency, John F. Kennedy saw his polling numbers rise after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In that ignominious episode, a CIA-supported attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow the Communist regime of Fidel Castro was routed within three days.

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