President Obama must have quite a lot on his mind. Indeed, the leader of the Western World is currently burdened with slumping poll numbers, an opposition Congress, a decidedly poor economy and a stubbornly high unemployment rate. Perhaps the President’s only bright spot is foreign policy.
Assailed during his 2008 campaign for his inexperience and political naiveté concerning foreign policy, President Obama has nonetheless enjoyed remarkable success on the global stage. In just over two and a half years, the President has won a Nobel Peace Prize, negotiated landmark nuclear arms treaties with Russia and India, outlined a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and overseen the assassinations of numerous terrorists and important military targets.
According to former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland in an online discussion on Politico, “Qadhafi, bin Laden, [Anwar] al-Awlak. Talk about speak softly but carry a big stick!”
No matter how many military successes the President enjoys, however, his global accomplishments will likely pale in the face of a beleaguered economy. The question surely on the minds of many a West Wing staffer now is whether the President’s significant foreign policy achievements will matter at all when voters go to the polls in 2012.
“Nothing is more dangerous in politics than success,” warned CNN contributor Alex Castellanos. “Ask Winston Churchill. Foreign policy successes have never led to political success. Foreign policy success leads to the next problem. For Obama that’s the economy.”
“The death of deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi will be touted by Democrats as another foreign policy success story for President Obama but seems unlikely to seriously affect his political fortunes heading into a 2012 campaign still laser-focused on the struggling U.S. economy,” wrote Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.
Indeed, the President’s job approval rating — which leaped into the high 50s following the killing of Osama bin Laden — is now hovering around 40 percent.
According to NBC political analysts, “No president since George H.W. Bush has had more foreign-policy successes happen under his watch than President Obama. … Yet when you look at polls and Obama’s approval rating, he’s getting almost no credit from the American public, a la Bush 41.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that more than 50 percent of Americans believed the economy was the single most important issue facing the country. Foreign policy, on the other hand, was chosen by just one percent of respondents.
Many politicos and polling experts inevitably compare President Obama to former President George H. W. Bush, whose approval approached nearly 90 percent immediately following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but still lost reelection the subsequent year in the face of a troubled economy.
The Republicans, indeed, have “no need to outflank Barack Obama on foreign policy, just as Bill Clinton ultimately had no need to outflank George H.W. Bush in 1992,” commented Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of the New Hampshire in an online discussion on Politico. “In an election that’s almost surely all about the economy, all [Mitt] Romney [or another GOP nominee] has to do is present himself to voters as a plausibly competent leader on foreign policy.”
Nonetheless, foreign policy is not inconsequential. As Michael Shear wrote in the New York Times, “For all of President Obama’s talk about the economy during the 2008 campaign, the issue that gave him a crucial early opening against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was the war in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton’s vote to authorize the 2003 invasion — and Mr. Obama’s opposition to it — helped shape his early campaign and gave energy to his core supporters.”
Indeed, foreign policy plays an important role in Presidential elections — even when there have been significant problems domestically. In 2004, for example, questions about Senator John Kerry’s service in Vietnam haunted his campaign. The Iran hostage crisis, on the other hand, is widely considered to have helped cost President Jimmy Carter the 1980 election.
None of these comparisons is perfect, of course. President Obama is undoubtedly a more gifted orator and politician than either President Bush or President Carter. That said, the current economic climate is among the worst in generations.
“But at the margins, these [foreign policy] successes can help the president slowly rebuild his ‘leadership’ scores with the public and certainly they put the Republican presidential candidates in a bit more of a box in their attempts to attack the president on foreign policy,” wrote the NBC analysts.
It is worth noting that none of the major Republican presidential candidates (with the exception of former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is considered a long shot to ultimately win the nomination) has almost any foreign policy experience. Ironically (considering the criticism he faced in the 2008 campaign), President Obama will likely be the foreign policy heavyweight in 2012.
But as prominent Republican pollster Glen Bolger noted in Cillizza’s Washington Post article, “The election is much more about Americans losing their jobs than about Gaddafi losing his head.”
The impact of foreign policy on the 2012 Presidential election remains to be seen. For now, however, it remains one of the largest question marks on the immediate political horizon.