Would Obama still be winning if he hadn’t killed Osama?

At their convention in Charlotte last week, Democrats seized on Barack Obama's rare advantage over Mitt Romney on national security, portraying the Republican candidate and his running mate as bumbling foreign-policy novices, repeatedly referencing the president's involvement in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and emphatically staking the Democratic Party's claim to leadership on national security.

"In a world of new threats and new challenges, you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven," Obama declared, while Senator John Kerry (D-MA) praised the president for giving "new life and truth to America's indispensable role in the world" and never asking "other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace." No wonder this week's headlines herald a full-fledged Democratic offensive against the Romney campaign on foreign policy.

But here's a counterfactual: Would Obama be in as strong a position today -- with substantial leads against Romney on counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security -- if he hadn't ordered the raid that killed bin Laden? The evidence is mixed.

To investigate the question, we need to travel back to the days before the bin Laden operation in May 2011. By April of that year, many of the cornerstones of Obama's foreign policy were in place. He had already ramped up drone strikes against suspected terrorists, ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, inked a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, and spearheaded the multilateral military intervention in Libya (Obama wouldn't withdraw the final U.S. troops from Iraq until the end of the year).

And yet, as the operation in Libya got underway, Rasmussen Reports recorded record-low approval for Obama's handling of national security, with only 37 percent of respondents supporting his policies, down from 45 percent a year earlier.

In the weeks after the bin Laden raid, however, Obama's national security ratings rebounded and his overall approval rating soared. "Obama's performance on national security and international affairs and his image as a strong leader appear to be behind his rising approval rating," CNN observed at the time.

But the bin Laden bounce is a bit misleading. While AP-GfK polling suggests that support for Obama's counterterrorism policies benefitted from the raid, with approval ratings peaking at 72 percent in May 2011 and hovering in the low 60s ever since, CBS News polling on support for Obama's handling of foreign policy doesn't indicate a similar trend (the president's approval rating has danced around in the 40s since 2010).

What's more, it's Republicans who seem to appreciate the bin Laden operation the most. When CNN recorded the surge in Obama's approval rating in May 2011, it noted that the al Qaeda leader's death had primarily boosted Obama's support among Republicans and senior citizens. Last December, the most popular answer (27 percent) to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News question about the Obama administration's "most positive accomplishment" was the killing of Osama bin Laden (27 percent). But only 14 percent of Democrats chose that answer compared with nearly half of Republican respondents.

Poll after poll this year suggests that voters care about jobs and the economy -- not foreign policy. But as the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake noted last year, these results can be red herrings:

Remember that presidential elections tend to turn less on the candidates' position on any single issue than the overall feeling that he (or she) engenders in the public.

Put more simply: Intangibles matter. And Obama's polling strength on national security could well help the incumbent win over voters who are on the fence about his overall performance during his first four years in office.

By drawing a sharp contrast with Romney on foreign policy -- arguably the president's greatest strength -- the Obama campaign may be trying to convince swing voters that the president's overall job performance has been strong enough to merit four more years in office. And if Obama weren't in a position to cite his greatest national security success so far, that would be a much harder case to make. 



Netanyahu blasts Obama administration ahead of election

Last week, I pointed out that Republicans and Democrats were both invoking Benjamin Netanyahu's statements to argue that the Israeli prime minister was on their side, even though Netanyahu himself has not explicitly expressed support for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in this year's election. That may still be true, but Netanyahu nevertheless issued a stinging criticism today of the Obama administration's refusal to set so-called "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program -- one that has major implications for the presidential race.

"Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," the Israeli leader declared, in a clear reference to the United States. Here's the New York Times account of the comments:

Addressing reporters here in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu unequivocally rejected those comments and slapped back at the United States. Speaking in English, he said, "The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there's still time.' And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."

In his remarks, made at a joint news conference with the visiting prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, Mr. Netanyahu also said: "Now if Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs."

He criticized the litany of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union as ineffective in stopping the enrichment program. "The fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Some in Israel are interpreting Netanyahu's rhetoric as an implicit endorsement of Romney, who argued on Sunday that Obama's biggest foreign-policy mistake was failing to halt Iran's nuclear program. "It's not every day that the prime minister of an isolated Israel issues what amounts to an ultimatum to his most dependable, most indispensible ally," Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote today. "It's not every day that an Israeli prime minister who by geopolitical necessity must be scrupulously neutral in an American presidential race, tailors his moves to the campaign of one party at the expense of the other." Burston continues:

In recent days, however, there's been a certain air of desperation in the ways Netanyahu has continued to pursue this policy. The desperation has grown in the face of the opposition of growing and already large numbers of respected current and former Israeli security, nuclear, diplomatic and intelligence experts to any attack on Iran at this time, and more pointedly, against a unilateral Israeli offensive.

And, in particular, when Barack Obama's campaign appears to be surging.

If immediate red lines are in order, Benjamin Netanyahu would be well advised to set them for himself, and the malice and abuse and disrespect he has heaped on the president....

If for no other reason than Netanyahu's preference for public pronouncements rather than back-channel cooperation with Washington, plays directly into the hands of Iran, and increases the potential dangers to Israel.

Or, if for no other reason, than the fact that Israeli officials are beginning to discuss the specifics of a threat that the prime minister's office has only discussed in vague whispers until now: Payback.

Simply put, what price will Netanyahu be made to pay, should Barack Obama win on November 6?

At a conference in Israel on Tuesday, Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Israel's Kadima Party, argued that Netanyahu wouldn't let U.S.-Israeli relations deteriorate to that point.

"We won't see military action against Iran in 2012; there's still time," he asserted. "There is no need for us to sacrifice the most important strategic partnership we have over the Iranian issue. It's up to Netanyahu to defeat [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not Obama." Haaretz is already reporting, however, that the White House has declined Netanyahu's request to meet with Obama at a U.N. conference in New York at the end of September (Netanyahu will meet with other U.S. officials). That's not a good sign for the bilateral relationship. 

I've noted before that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could swiftly swing an election that, barring a major world event, should revolve around the economy. Watch this space.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images