Current GOP presidential candidates are fond of criticizing President Obama’s handling of foreign policy, but few offer policy alternatives of their own. Obama could very well attribute his election in 2008 to his opposition to the Iraq War. His opponent for the Democratic party nomination, Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State, could not offer a reasonable explanation to validate her vote for the Iraq War in 2003.
In the general election, the defeat of Sen. John McCain is attributed to reasons other than Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War. The economy had turned south, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice president, and voters were prepared to embrace a candidate who was a complete contrast to George W. Bush: an African American candidate with little national exposure aside from a well-received speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. The arguments continually leveled at Obama at the time, that he was too naïve to be president and would be too soft on national security and foreign policy, never gained traction with general election voters.
With the economy still in dire shape and few signs that a recovery will be robust, Obama’s handling of foreign policy and foreign affairs could very well be upstaged by the economy, especially with over 9 percent unemployment. However, Obama’s handling of foreign policy, for now, has seemed to diminish the GOP’s long-held position as the party of strong foreign policy and defense. In the past, if American voters were concerned over matters of national security they would elect a Republican. Jimmy Carter created the perception that Democrats were weak on national security and defense because of his handling of Iran in the late 1970s.
John Kerry lost in 2004 partly because he could not shake the perception that he too would be weak on matters of national security. He never offered a reasonable explanation for his vote authorizing the Iraq War in 2003. Despite his service in Vietnam, his anti-war activities soon afterwards undercut his message that he would keep the American voter safe. Kerry’s perception as a “flip flopper,” driven home by outside political groups in attack ads, added to this perception.
Obama’s announcement that U.S. combat forces would exit Iraq by the end of this year (a continuation of a George W. Bush’s policy) and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May of this year along with a number of other foreign policy victories, has erased the one policy area that the Republicans had ownership of for years. Recent polling by Gallup gives Obama relatively high marks for Iraq, terrorism and Afghanistan, but with a majority of Americans focused on their economic futures, Obama faces an uncertain electoral terrain.
Obama has a 63 percent approval of his handling of terrorism, while 31 disapprove. “Obama’s 63% approval rating on terrorism is up from 53% in August, and restored to where it stood in May after Osama bin Laden’s death — possibly a halo effect from Americans’ satisfaction with Obama’s more recent foreign policy achievements,” Gallup said in releasing the polling data. With Iraq, an issue that vaulted him to the nomination over his opponent Clinton, 52 percent approve of his handling of the ongoing conflict while 41 disapprove. On the Afghan War, the president has an approval rating of 48 percent while 44 percent disapprove. On the broad question of foreign affairs, Obama polls favorably at 49 percent with 44 percent disapproving.
Overall, the polling data reflects a changing perception of the president. The Osama killing, the announcement of the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq and the announced killing of Qaddafi in Libya, and the subsequent conclusion of the U.S. role there, all occurred in a relatively short period of time. Obama’s overall approval or disapproval ratings reflected little change in previous polling by Gallup. “Obama’s foreign policy-related approval ratings all improved from their prior readings. This probably reflects the events leading up to the Nov. 3-6 poll, including the killing of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi on Oct. 20 by opposition forces in that country — an event signaling the likely conclusion of the United States’ military involvement there,” Gallup said. “The poll also followed President Obama’s Oct. 21 announcement that he will be pulling nearly all U.S. military forces out of Iraq by year’s end.”
Troubling for the president and his strategists, but offering hope to whomever captures the GOP nomination, is the perception, by those polled, of his handling of the economy. 67 percent disapprove compared to 30 percent who approve. Importantly, on the perception of Obama’s jobs creating strategy, 36 percent approve while 60 disapprove of this issue. All of this would bode well for Obama’s potential opponent except for the minor fact that the GOP cannot coalesce around a single candidate. Unless the GOP quickly ends the political gamesmanship, the continuing process of debate after debate risks further dividing their ranks. Further, the GOP candidate may come out of a process so politically flawed and damaged as to enable President Obama to win a second term.
However, a recent Gallup poll does show strong support for Romney, however passionate this support is remains to be seen. Polling of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters shows a preference for Romney. Mitt Romney was the presumptive front-runner until Gov. Rick Perry entered the race only to be eclipsed by Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s pizza who faces political pitfalls following allegations that he sexually harassed a number of women in the 1990s. Despite these accusations, Cain is still polling relatively well compared to Romney which demonstrates a relatively weak GOP field.
But voters who will be inundated by television ads paid for by all sorts of interest groups will have a new reality to consider next November. What are the important factors in choosing a candidate? Kitchen table issues are perennially important for many voters but they might also question whether they are safer than they would be under a new administration of Romney, Cain, Perry, Bachmann, Huntsman, Gingrich, Santorum or Paul.
Obama’s foreign policy triumphs and successes perceived or real could be decisive for some undecided voters. Obama has succeeded in a crucially important field. He has co-opted the GOP by depriving them of claiming the president a failure on both the economy and foreign affairs. Al Hunt of Bloomberg writes, “President Barack Obama’s foreign policy successes — most recently, the toppling of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi — are of only marginal value to his re-election struggle. The corollary is that Republican hopes earlier this year of a 1-2 punch against Obama — a soft economy and softness on national security, which were determinant in unseating another Democratic incumbent in 1980 — are diminishing. This time, they can only count on a one-punch, the economy.”
Some of the Republican candidates like Huntsman and Paul profess isolationist tendencies and Mitt Romney has transformed himself into a neocon. The GOP appears to lack a coherent foreign policy platform at this time. The upcoming CBS News/National Journal debate on November 12th in North Carolina offers the current GOP candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their command of the issues, how their administrations would depart significantly from the current administration and to point out those areas where President Obama has failed on the international stage.