In an interview with Chris Wallace this past Sunday, Sarah Palin made the suggestion that if Obama went to war with Iran, it could possibly save his presidency politically. The idea arose last week in an NRO column by Daniel Pipes, titled “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran.” Pipes’s prediction is that military strikes against Iran’s nuclear capacities would have the effect of bolstering Obama’s perceived toughness. He cites polls that indicate the American people would support such action against Iran. He then predicts: “after a strike Americans will presumably rally around the flag, sending that number much higher.”
Looking at historical presidential approval ratings, I am somewhat doubtful as to whether Obama would receive a lasting boost in approval. Regardless of the Iranian nuclear capability, such military action would have to be sold in the same way that the 2003 Iraq intervention was: a preventive military operation. 72 percent of Americans supported the Iraq war in 2003, yet there was no approval spike for George W. Bush even after the initial invasion was shown to be successful.
An Iranian military strike would be sold to the American public as a bombing, and hypothetically free of casualties and boots on the ground, which would make it substantially different from the Iraq example. Proponents of the invasion could also avoid using the “n-word” — nation-building. But even in other military operations, such as the April, 1986 bombing of Libya, President Reagan did not get much of a boost for that strike and quickly dipped after Iran-Contra. President Clinton’s numbers mainly stayed flat during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.
Even if President Obama did receive a boost in approval after a successful military operation, that would not conclusively save his presidency. President George H.W. Bush saw his approval numbers jump to over 80 percent during the Gulf War in 1991, but then watched his support fall off as the 1992 recession dragged on. In 1992, he was kicked out of office while only receiving 37.5 percent of the popular vote.
The American people are already war-weary and are doubting the president’s ability to command the military. I do not mean to imply that bombing Iran would not cause a jump in approval for the president, but military actions are risky business, and the operational as well as political outcomes are far from certain.