Foreign Crises Weaken Obama at Home

The conventional wisdom is that US voters don’t care about foreign policy. Even on its face, this is silly: Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, and Iraq mattered in the ensuing elections. But voters don’t just care about wars. They care about perceptions of strength. And since 2013, President Barack Obama has looked weak.

The most compelling part of tomorrow’s mid-term elections is the battle for the Senate. The Republicans are favoured to win at least the six seats they need to take control, though polling margins are narrow everywhere: it is never easy to beat an incumbent.

The reasons for the Republican edge are partly structural. Two-term presidents like Obama often do poorly in their final mid-term election. That problem is worse this time for the Democrats, who are trying to defend marginal Senate seats they won in 2008, a problem the Republicans will face in future years.

And there are other drags on the Democrats. Obama’s job approval has rarely been worse. Then there’s the economy. While America’s anaemic 1.9 per cent growth rate in 2013 looks good compared to the EU’s incredible shrinking economy, the American public (rightly) isn’t satisfied. And then there’s Obamacare. This is a difficult point to get across in Britain, but the fact is that Obamacare is unpopular.

All those factors weigh heavily on the Democrats. But there’s another: foreign affairs. For years, polls showed Obama’s foreign policy had majority support. But in early June 2013, his ratings turned negative, just as his overall job approval did the same. A further collapse came in June 2014 when his foreign policy became even more unpopular than he is.

It’s rarely easy to connect crises overseas to shifts in US sentiment. But June 2013 marked the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, while this June brought Isis to public visibility when it captured Mosul. Those were watershed events.

The first made it obvious that Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons had no credibility; the second showed that he had squandered the US’s hard-won gains in Iraq and that, regardless of his own assertions, al-Qaida wasn’t finished. Coupled with bungles like Ebola and disasters like Ukraine, they’ve created the sense that everything is falling apart.

Foreign policy, in the narrow sense, has little effect on public opinion. But foreign affairs, in the broader sense, have a powerful effect. Most Americans want their president to look strong, be credible, and lead from the front.

Since June 2013, events have deprived Obama of any claim to those virtues, and opinion has shifted accordingly. What matters more is the shift within the shift. American attitudes towards international involvement are often partisan: Democrats, for example, trust Democratic involvement. But not always.

In September, the House Democratic Whip claimed that Obama’s request to arm Syrian rebels had “overwhelming support”. Yet in the vote, 85 Democrats opposed their President’s plan, while 114 supported it. By contrast, Republicans voted over two to one in Obama’s favour.

In short, opinion is drifting back to where it was before 2008, with conservatives more willing to support an active US role in the world, and liberals returning to scepticism. What they have in common is the belief that the President is not up to the level of events.

The main reason for the shift is that events matter. But so does knowledge: another Pew survey found that Republicans know more about current affairs than Democrats. That knowledge gap showed up again in a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found that a majority of Democrats were willing to commit US troops as part of an international force to “enforce” a peace agreement in Syria.

That is a fantasy. If you think the Iraq War was tough, imagine what would be required to “enforce” peace in Syria. The Chicago survey shows that what liberals crave is merely international approval. As events have shown that Obama cannot command this approval, the liberal passion for an active US role that the Chicago survey detected has faded.

In 2014, foreign affairs are a reason why the President’s party is struggling. But the more important struggle is the one ahead for all Americans.

The President’s challenges are our challenges too.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post