By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The killing of Osama bin Laden sharply boosted President Barack Obama's image, improving Americans' views of his leadership and his efforts to fight terrorism, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found.
About four in 10 Americans say their opinion of Obama improved after he ordered Monday's successful U.S. military operation in Pakistan to kill bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.
But the boost to Obama's popularity from bin Laden's death could be short-lived as voters focus again on the economy and lingering unemployment -- top concerns heading into 2012 election campaign.
"There is no evidence the boost in his approval rating will last until the election, but an event like this could position Obama as more of a military leader and give him more authority," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.
That could put a long-term dent in Republican efforts to paint Obama as weak and indecisive on national security, particularly after criticism he was slow in reacting to the "Arab Spring" protests in the Middle East and North Africa.
"The way we perceive Obama could change, and that will help him in the long run," Clark said.
Obama's approval rating has slumped into the mid-40s in recent weeks as voters have grown increasingly pessimistic about the future and upset at rising gasoline prices.
Obama's biggest task during the campaign is likely to be to convince Americans he is turning the corner toward an economic recovery, and to re-engage the young and first-time voters who helped propel him to victory in 2008.
In the poll, 39 percent of Americans said their image of Obama's leadership had improved, while 52 percent said it had not changed and 10 percent said it had worsened.
Forty-two percent said they had a higher opinion of Obama's handling of anti-terrorism efforts, with 50 percent saying it was unchanged and 7 percent that it had worsened.
REPUBLICANS MORE POSITIVE
About one in five Republicans said their views of Obama improved after bin Laden's death, with about one-quarter of independents and more than half of Democrats taking more positive views of the president.
The death of bin Laden -- who became the epitome of evil for many Americans and the world's most wanted militant for his role in the 2001 attacks -- sparked impromptu street celebrations outside the White House and in New York.
"With even one in five Republicans feeling more positive toward Obama, that almost guarantees he will have a short-term bump in his approval rating," Clark said.
The U.S. military and intelligence communities saw even bigger jumps in their public standing, with nearly two-thirds of Americans saying their views of the two had improved.
Thirty-two percent of Americans think Obama deserves the most credit for the U.S. special forces' assault on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, while 13 percent gave credit to former President George W. Bush.
Another 25 percent said neither deserved the most credit, and Clark said "we can assume those people believe it was the military and perhaps intelligence agencies that deserve credit."
A third of Americans said they were more in favor of holding suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo military prison in Cuba since the bin Laden killing.
About two-thirds of Americans, 68 percent, said they feel about as safe as they did before bin Laden's death, with 18 percent saying they felt safer and 14 percent saying they feel less safe.
The poll was conducted on Monday with 1,010 adults in the United States interviewed online.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Deborah Charles)