3Qs: The political effects of Libyan leader’s fall

Former Libyan dic­tator Moammar Gad­hafi was killed on Thursday by rev­o­lu­tionary fighters in his home­town of Sirte. We asked Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence in North­eastern University’s Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to ana­lyze the impact of Gadhafi’s death on U.S. pol­i­tics and the 2012 pres­i­den­tial campaign.

Robert E. Gilbert, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science. PHOTO: Mary Knox Merrill / Northeastern University

How will the death of Moammar Gadhafi affect President Obama’s re-election run?

Last May, the death of Osama bin Laden, U.S. public enemy number one, 
boosted President Obama’s favorability rating by 14 points. This is because Obama ordered bin Laden’s execution. Gadhafi’s status is not as “exalted” here and the United States’ role in his death appears to be much more indirect. I would be surprised if Gadhafi’s demise will exert any significant effect on the President’s re-election prospects.

What role can victories in foreign policy play in presidential campaigns? Should we expect to see a boost in President Obama’s approval rating as a result of Gadhafi’s death?

Studies show that any dramatic, short-term, sharply focused international event in which the United States is involved leads to an increase in a president’s popularity. It doesn’t matter if the events are “good” or “bad.” John F. Kennedy’s popularity, for example, increased after both the Cuban missile crisis (a success) and the Bay of Pigs (a disaster). The election of 2012 is still more than a year away. Any boost for Obama will be minimal and will fade quickly.

Will members of the Republican presidential field give Obama credit for his military strategy to rely on allies to bring Gadhafi to justice?

As a group, the Republican hopefuls are likely to give President Obama little credit for anything he does. This is a political season, and our present environment is hyper-partisan. There was also some sensitivity last spring to the fact that Obama did not go to Congress to get formal authorization to participate in any way in the anti-Gadhafi military campaign. So I wouldn’t now expect many plaudits from his would-be successors.

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