Obama's foreign successes may help little in 2012

October 24, 2011 - 7:08 AM
APTOPIX Troop Homecoming

Capt. Corey Steiner is welcomed home by his daughter, Lilliana Steiner, during a homecoming ceremony, Friday, Oct. 21, 2011 at Ft. Carson, Colo. All U.S. troops

WASHINGTON (AP) — By declaring the Iraq war over, President Barack Obama scored what his allies see as a fourth big foreign policy success in six months, starting with Osama bin Laden's killing. But these events might play a discouragingly small role in his re-election bid, even if they burnish his eventual place in history.

American voters tend to focus heavily on domestic issues, especially in times of high unemployment. That will limit Obama's campaign options.

His supporters are seeking ways to make the most of his foreign policy accomplishments. One approach is to contrast them with Congress' partisan-driven gridlock on taxes, the deficit and other domestic issues.

"Look at the progress the president can make when he doesn't have Republicans obstructing him," said Karen Finney, a former Democratic spokeswoman who often defends the party on TV and radio.

Former Democratic strategist Rebecca Kirszner Katz distributed a similar remark on Twitter this week: "Terrorists and dictators, lacking the filibuster, have no effective defense against Barack Obama." It referred to the stalling tactic that Senate Republicans frequently use to kill Democratic bills even though they hold only 47 of the chamber's 100 seats.

These Democrats hope Americans will see a bold and capable president who keeps his promises when Republicans don't create roadblocks. They note that he green-lighted a daring nighttime raid to kill bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1; approved policies that led to last month's drone-missile killing of American-born terror advocate Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen; backed allied actions that led to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ouster and death; and ended U.S. involvement in Iraq on schedule.

"It is very important for any incumbent to be able to talk about promises made and promises kept," Finney said. The list of achievements, contrasted with President George W. Bush's erroneous claims about Iraq's weaponry in the first place, should help Democrats shake their image of being the weaker party on national security, she said.

"That baggage is finally lifted," Finney said.

Translating that claim into votes for Obama 13 months from now may be difficult, however. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll confirmed that Americans still place far greater emphasis on domestic issues, especially the economy, than on foreign matters, including the war on terrorism.

The poll found Obama's overall approval rating at an all-time low, 46 percent, for the second straight month, even though 64 percent of adults approved of his handling of terrorism. Only 40 percent approved of his handling of the economy.

Ninety-three percent of those questioned said the economy was an extremely or very important issue. By comparison, 73 percent put the same emphasis on terrorism.

Democratic officials believe Obama's foreign policy record will look even better when the Republican presidential candidates hold a debate on that topic Nov. 15. Leading contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are current or former governors, and Herman Cain has never held public office. So none has extensive foreign policy experience.

Voters routinely accept that, however. In recent presidential elections they have chosen governors from Georgia, California, Arkansas and Texas, plus a first-term senator, Obama.

On Friday, Romney and Perry criticized Obama's handling of Iraq. Some Democrats found Romney's remarks exceptionally harsh.

"President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women," Romney said. "The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government."

Obama's defenders fired back. "Is there anything more hollow than Mitt Romney decrying 'political considerations' in decision-making?" said former White House spokesman Bill Burton.

Perry said in a statement: "I'm deeply concerned that President Obama is putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment by announcing an end to troop level negotiations and a withdrawal from Iraq by year's end." He said Obama "was slow to engage the Iraqis and there's little evidence today's decision is based on advice from military commanders."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was more generous. "American forces not only freed Iraq from a vicious tyrant, but — under the strategy developed and implemented by our generals, and the leadership of both President Bush and President Obama — ended a violent terrorist insurgency," he said.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama "kept his pledge to the nation to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, he has promoted our security in Afghanistan, and eliminated key al-Qaida leaders." He said Romney "didn't lay out a plan to end the war in Iraq."

Long-time Republican strategist Rich Galen said the economy clearly will dominate the 2012 election, and it might undo Obama. As for Obama's foreign record, however, Galen said, "they're doing exactly the right thing" by highlighting every success they can.

Galen said Obama clearly deserves credit for the gutsy raid on bin Laden's hideaway.