Sabato's Crystal Ball

Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Wins Lead to a Win Next Year?

Thomas F. Schaller, Guest Columnist November 17th, 2011

Presidents do not have a lot of leisure reading time, so it’s unlikely that Barack Obama has had time to flip through the pages of Harper’s November issue. And that’s probably good news for the president, because here are the first two entries of the famed “Harper’s Index” this month:

Portion of Americans who think the death of Osama bin Laden will make it easier to “win the global war on terror”: 2/5

Portion who thought that the capture of Saddam Hussein would: 3/5

The perplexing poll result is indicative of a larger electoral problem facing Obama as it relates to foreign policy and national security: His performance thus far has been pretty solid, but he stands to reap little to no electoral benefit from it.

Obama’s foreign policy and national security record

The president’s foreign policy record is hardly perfect. But from an electoral standpoint he should have plenty to brag about as he campaigns for a second term. Herewith, an abbreviated report card:

Iraq: In the wake of announcing America’s troop removal from Iraq, some warned that Obama’s decision could increase Middle East instability and embolden Iran. But thus far, at least, the policy pushback from Republicans has been minimal. “Critics charge that the withdrawal is a defeat for the United States and a victory for Iran, and that it leaves Iraq vulnerable to a rekindled civil war,” Brett McGurk, who served on the national security staffs of both President George W. Bush and President Obama, wrote recently in the Washington Post. “They could not be more wrong.”

Whatever policy complaints might be raised about the wisdom of withdrawal, two things are clear and both should, in theory, benefit the president. First, Obama can boast that he delivered on one of the biggest campaign promises he made during his 2008 White House bid. And second, the withdrawal is overwhelmingly popular. According to a Gallup poll released week, 75% of Americans support the decision. In our divided partisan era — where agreement among three-quarters of the public is limited to a small subset of issues, like cutting foreign aid or reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — this is about as close as the public comes to unanimity. The Gallup results confirm that the Iraq withdrawal should help Obama shore up his base — 96% of Democrats approve — and also raise his standing among crucial independents, 77% of whom approve.

War on Terror: The national security reelection argument for Obama should, in theory, start and end with the administration’s killing of Osama bin Laden. The mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks was taken out during a daring, middle-of-the-night raid in Pakistan. Although some talk show conservatives tried to assign all the credit to American special forces, even Obama’s White House predecessor called it a “momentous achievement” and a “victory for America.” Obama enjoyed an immediate though temporary boost in his approval rating after the killing.

Five months later, the Obama administration ordered what former Vice President Dick Cheney called a “very good” drone missile strike of a convoy in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki — the man many analysts considered the next bin Laden — along with several of his alleged terrorist associates. In effect, the president can claim credit for killing America’s Public Enemy No. 1, and the man most likely to eventually replace him on that list.

Libya, Egypt and the Arab Spring: To the list of foreign problems erased — that’s premature: potentially erased — add the Libyan dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Some Republicans initially complained that Obama was overreaching, but criticisms of the president have been generally muted. Newt Gingrich’s flip-flop on Libya epitomizes the uncertainty among Republicans about how to take swipes at a president who hasn’t hesitated to flex American muscles abroad, especially via drone missile strikes.

But the president who some Americans remain convinced is a Muslim isn’t reaping any benefit from the changes unfolding during his watch in key parts of the Muslim world. “If Obama only got a brief, small bump from bin Laden’s death, Qaddafi’s death isn’t going to matter at all by the time we hand out the candy this October, much less next October,” chirped Mitt Romney pollster Glen Bolger during Halloween week to the Washington Post, which concluded that the Libyan dictator’s death won’t help Obama’s reelection chances one bit.

Support and salience

Because of “rally around the flag” effects, presidents usually enjoy higher public approval for their handling of foreign policy than economic policy, and Obama is no different. According to Pollster.com and as of earlier this week, Obama has a 25-point approval deficit on the economy (35% approval, 60% disapproval), but enjoys an eight-point approval edge on foreign policy (51%/43%).

What’s more compelling — and for the president, discouraging — about his foreign and domestic numbers are the trends. As the two Pollster.com charts show, after an initial honeymoon Obama’s strong approval ratings settled into the normal range by the end of 2009. Since then, however, his negative economic spread has steadily widened, while his foreign policy approval margin has held steady for the past two years at a narrow positive edge. In short, the president’s successes abroad have not moved his numbers one bit.

And issue approval ratings help or hurt only insofar as voters express that they care about those issues. According to a mid-October Rasmussen poll, about half of Americans rate national security/war on terror, and about a quarter of the public rates both Afghanistan (28%) and Iraq (26%), as “very important.” By contrast, majorities of Americans rate as very important the economy (84%), health care (63%), taxes (58%), Social Security (58%), education (56%) and immigration (52%). Heck, at 62% even the somewhat ambiguous “government ethics and corruption” rates higher than national security in the voters’ minds.

Last Friday, Obama celebrated Veterans Day watching the Carrier Classic basketball game between the University of North Carolina and Michigan State on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. Tricked out in a fighter jacket, with the First Lady at his side, the president honored the nation’s veterans and watched some hoops, his favorite team sport. With a relatively successful year behind him highlighted by the end of the Iraq war, the killing of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, Obama had plenty of reasons to smile. But a year from now, if the economy does not pick up, successes abroad and smiles from courtside may not be enough.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun.