The Skeptics

Why Can’t Obama Buy a Vowel?

By most measures, President Obama has enjoyed more foreign policy success than his predecessor. As promised, Obama managed the draw down of troops in Iraq without getting the U.S. dragged back into Iraqi politics, clearly something the American public supports. As a follow on act, he ordered the raid that brought down bin Laden and sent al Qaeda reeling, and announced the timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Again, both things that Americans have long agreed were necessary. Most recently, of course, Obama gets some credit for U.S. participation in bringing an end to Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.

Despite all this, as the polls reveal, Obama can’t seem to buy a vowel with the American public. The chart below presents a series of polls that asked people whether they approve or disapprove of Obama’s handling of various foreign policy issues. You can find the polls referenced below here and here.

Why no “A’s” for Obama? There are at least three big reasons.

First, the economy stinks. Like all presidents, Obama is yoked to the GNP and his approval ratings on all issues will rise and (mostly) fall with the economic news, almost all of which has recently been horrendous. That news, amplified by the epic waste of tax money that was the debt ceiling debate, has kept Obama’s overall approval rating stuck in the mid 40’s. Once a president is unpopular, it becomes very difficult to dig out of the hole. Rhetoric that might have been persuasive during the honeymoon phase won’t cut it now.

Second, the GOP is not on board. Given the current state of American politics, it’s laughable to imagine that Republicans would publicly acknowledge Obama’s successes, especially when they are trying so hard to ensure that he doesn’t get a second term. As the GOP leadership criticizes Obama’s foreign policy and underplays his successes, grassroots Republicans take those cues and turn them into skeptical public opinion.

Third, most of Obama’s successes are messy and limited. Effective foreign policy on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan is an immensely complex undertaking. Unlike the military phase of a shooting war, nation building and counterinsurgency efforts offer few clear-cut signs of victory. Moreover, they produce lots of bad news even when things are going well. Nothing Obama can do at this point will make Iraq or Afghanistan look pretty or look like an obvious victory, especially to a public that pays little attention to things once the crisis phase is over. This helps explain, for instance, why 75 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s decision to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan, yet just 50 percent of Americans approve of his overall handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Obama can make a strong case that things could be much worse without his policies, but that doesn’t make the continued mess (including U.S. casualties) easy to swallow. At best, Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq look like a mixed bag—hardly enough to overcome the political headwind posed by the economy.

The Libya intervention success is of a more obvious type (Qaddafi is done), but unfortunately for Obama it is also mostly irrelevant. 63 percent of Americans believe that getting rid of Qaddafi is either just a minor achievement for the United States or not an achievement at all.

Likewise, the raid that killed bin Laden qualifies as a clear-cut and widely acknowledged foreign policy success, but only a limited one. Unfortunately for Obama, bin Laden’s death came so long after 9/11 and did so little to change the facts on the ground in Afghanistan or elsewhere that it moved Obama’s numbers on terrorism handling (a little), but it did not move the needle on Obama’s broader approval ratings. It is an undeniable success, but it may prove to be a slender reed come 2012.