WASHINGTON (AP) — Was the U.S. right to kill Osama bin Laden? Absolutely, and about time, Americans say. A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows the nation supporting the raid with rare unanimity, and the glow from the operation is also boosting approval for President Barack Obama's handling of terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.
Few events have sparked such soaring approval from the nation, and almost nothing has since George W. Bush's handling of the U.S. campaign against terrorism in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Enthusiasm for the risky raid after its success has given Obama some of his highest marks since early in his presidency, and more than half of Americans now say he deserves to be re-elected.
At the same time, many say bin Laden's death has increased the threat of terrorism against America.
The death, after nearly a decade-long hunt, of the man blamed for killing thousands of Americans also appeared to help boost Americans' optimism in areas that would seem to have little connection to bin Laden, terrorism or national security.
More Americans — 45 percent, up from 35 percent in March — say the country is headed in the right direction. Still, about half — 52 percent — say things are heading the wrong way, reflecting the effect of more polarizing domestic issues such as the economy, federal budget deficit and health care overhaul.
Despite a sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, 52 percent of Americans now approve of Obama's stewardship of the economy, giving him his best rating on that issue since the early days of his presidency.
Overall, Obama's approval rating is up to 60 percent from 53 percent in March and the 47 percent low point following last fall's congressional elections. It was 64 percent in May 2009, just months after he was sworn into office. Independents, who are likely to be a key voting bloc in the 2012 presidential election, caused the new uptick in support by sliding back to Obama.
The AP-GfK results were striking in that they found Obama with a higher approval rating than other recent polls that generally said he was in the low 50s. Polls often produce varying results because of differences in question wording and polling methodology. Also, during periods when public opinion about an issue is particularly volatile, and at times when the public is being presented with rapidly changing information, it is not uncommon to see wider variations across polls, even those conducted around the same time.
Some conservatives criticized the AP-GfK poll as heavy with responses from Democrats that skewed the results. AP-GfK polls use a consistent methodology that draws a random sample of the population independent of party identification. Such identification is not static and tends to fluctuate over time along with other political opinions. However, the change in party identification in the current AP-GfK current poll is not a statistically significant shift from the previous poll in March and could not by itself explain the poll findings
The poll reflected somewhat mixed feelings by Americans about the ramifications of the bin Laden raid and the general trend of terrorist threats.
Although nearly nine in 10 of those polled approved of killing the al-Qaida leader, 50 percent said it increased the threat of terrorist acts against the United States. Seventeen percent said it decreased the threat, while 31 percent said they believed it had no effect on terrorism.
On the other hand, the poll showed Americans are a little less worried about becoming victims of terrorism themselves. Thirty-three percent said they often or sometimes worry, down slightly from 37 percent last November and 40 percent in January 2010. Thirty-three percent said they are very or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family might become victims of a terrorist attack, about on par with 35 percent who said so two years ago.
Three-quarters said it took too long to find the al-Qaida leader, who fled from Afghanistan's eastern mountains into Pakistan in late 2001 under pursuit by U.S. forces and apparently had holed up in a compound in a city not far from Islamabad for the past several years.
According to the U.S. government, bin Laden was shot to death by a team of Navy SEAL commandos that swept into his compound aboard helicopters May 2. Bin Laden did not have a weapon in his hands at the time he was shot but appeared to be reaching for one, U.S. officials say.
In the poll, conducted May 5-9, some 86 percent said they approved of the way the U.S. military and the CIA handled the raid, in which the Pakistan government was not informed until the SEALs had left Pakistani airspace. Just 6 percent disapproved. And 87 percent considered killing bin Laden during the raid to be justified, while nine percent said U.S. forces were not justified in killing the al-Qaida leader.
Asked whether the Obama administration should release a photo of bin Laden's corpse, 64 percent said no; 34 percent felt a photo or video should be released. The day before the poll began, the Obama administration announced it would not release photos of bin Laden's dead body. Nearly two-thirds in the poll said the government has released enough information about the raid.
In the aftermath of the bin Laden killing, some have argued that information obtained through harsh interrogations during the Bush administration was important in putting the U.S. on his trail. Six in ten in the poll said the use of torture against suspected terrorists in pursuit of information about terrorism is sometimes or often justified, up from about half in an AP-GfK poll two years ago.
Obama has called the elimination of bin Laden a major step forward in defeating al-Qaida, while cautioning that U.S. forces will continue pursuing other terrorist leaders and will keep a military presence in neighboring Afghanistan through 2014 to prevent that country from again becoming a haven for the organization. The president is approaching a decision on how many troops to withdraw in July as part of a planned four-year transition to Afghan government control of security across the country.
On the war itself, 59 percent said they oppose it and 37 percent support it — little changed from other recent polling.
But the new poll found a marked increase in public approval of Obama's handling of the war. Sixty-five percent said they approve, compared with 55 percent in an AP-GfK survey in late March and 48 percent last November.
Eight in 10 said they like Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July and to end the U.S. combat role there by the end of 2014. Fifteen percent disapprove. Nearly six in 10 called that timetable about right, while 26 percent said it was too slow.
On the broader question of Obama's handling of terrorism, 72 percent approved, compared to 61 percent in March. His gains were even more dramatic among those who said they strongly approve: 40 percent, compared to 25 percent in March.
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP
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