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Yes, Bin Laden’s Death Will Help Obama, but for How Long?

Osama bin Laden is dead.

I got the news on Twitter while in a taxi back from J.F.K. Airport. I told my cabbie, who was in disbelief at first, to turn the radio on. We took in the story together. I’m as patriotic as the next guy: it was a nice moment.

I suppose I’m supposed to weigh in on the electoral implications of this. It’s both very easy and very difficult to write about.

To state the obvious, this is good news for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. I can’t imagine a single, atomized piece of news, foreign or domestic, that would be better for the President.

Although the Republican candidates had not seemed especially interested in making an issue out of national security — perhaps because Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has been fairly hawkish and not clearly differentiated from theirs — it at the very least neuters the issue for them. It presumably will become a significant talking point for the President — the sort of thing that swing voters will be reminded of in a commercial on the eve of the 2012 elections.

The news will also, almost certainly, trigger a significant improvement in Mr. Obama’s approval rating.

The sense in which I’d urge caution is that the former is not equal to the latter. Yes, this is going to help Mr. Obama — to some degree or another — in November 2012. And yes, it’s also going to make Mr. Obama look much more formidable in the near-term.

But I’m not sure that the magnitude of the bump that Mr. Obama might get in the Gallup tracking poll is going to be especially predictive of how much the residue of this news might produce for him 19 months from now.

In 1991, the top 8 or 10 Democratic candidates skipped the presidential race because George H.W. Bush seemed unbeatable in the wake of the popular Gulf War. But by November 1992, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings were in the 30s, and Bill Clinton defeated him easily — as most any Democratic candidate would have.

That is not to suggest that this news won’t be helpful to the President. Of course it will help him.

But, the 2012 election was probably not going to revolve around national security. Instead, the Republican nominee was probably going to attempt to make the campaign about the size of government and the future of the welfare state: how to deal with entitlement programs in the face of an increasing national debt.

This news may not change the focal point of the campaign. And it may not cause Americans to forget about the direction of the economy, which they remain largely unhappy about.

The biggest mistake that Republican candidates could make would be to be intimated by the approval ratings of a president who, while not easy to defeat, may still be quite vulnerable in November 2012.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.