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Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power


President Obama holds a press conference before a meeting with his national security team on the militant threat in Syria and Iraq.

President Obama holds a press conference before a meeting with his national security team on the militant threat in Syria and Iraq.

Two months before midterm congressional elections that will have a huge impact on the last two years of his tenure, President Barack Obama faces dueling foreign policy crises that pose a leadership test both at home and abroad.

The growing threat from Islamic State militants in the Middle East and Russia’s latest military move into Ukraine have brought into clear focus the challenges for the United States in an age where Washington policy makers are acutely mindful of the U.S. public’s waning appetite for overseas military engagements.

President Obama’s acknowledgement that the U.S. doesn’t “have a strategy yet” with regard to containing Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria suggests the administration wants to take some time to explore its options both militarily and diplomatically before reaching any decisions on whether to expand the U.S. air campaign into Syria. As the president said, “Syria is not simply a military issue, it’s also a political issue.”

Obama’s comment drew some immediate fire from some of his Republican critics. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan, said the president’s comment “confirmed what we have been talking about really for almost two years. There has been no real strategy.”

Another Republican had a different view. Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma told MSNBC television said he thought the president “was being commendably cautious about being involved in the middle of the Syrian civil war.”

Cole also said the administration should go to Congress for authorization on ramping up its military strikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria, something several Democrats have also said they would support if a decision is made to expand attacks beyond northern Iraq.

Obama is also warning that Russia is likely to face more Western sanctions over its latest moves in Ukraine, but he also said the U.S. will not be taking military action “to solve the Ukrainian problem.”

Foreign Policy and the Midterm Elections

As Congress returns to Washington from its lengthy August recess, the president can expect even more Republican pressure to act decisively and boldly in light of the twin challenges in Syria and Ukraine. Both issues could resonate with voters in November's midterm elections, which present Republicans with their best opportunity in years to seize control both of both houses of Congress for the final two years of the Obama presidency.

President Obama’s overall public approval ratings remain low—just above 40 percent in most national polls—and that usually spells trouble for the president’s party in a midterm contest. But the public so far seems supportive of air attacks on Islamic State militants in Iraq, also known as ISIL, and the recent beheading of American journalist James Foley seems to have galvanized U.S. public opposition to the group.

But lingering public wariness of U.S. ground troops engaging in overseas conflicts in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq means the president must still confront the limits of U.S. military power in the context of what the American public is willing to support in any given crisis. It is far easier to build public support for limited, successful drone and air attacks than a more open-ended military commitment that could involve ground troops.

Foreign policy issues usually don’t become critical factors in midterm elections. But given recent events in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, the Obama administration’s overall foreign policy approach has come under fire from congressional Republicans and is being highlighted by some Republican candidates for the House and Senate. President Obama has been getting some negative public approval ratings on his handling of foreign policy and that, combined with continuing apprehension about the economy, have driven his overall ratings to some of the lowest points of his presidency. Some analysts believe that a firmer hand against Islamic State militants in both Iraq and Syria could help alter public perceptions about the president’s management of foreign policy, an area where he was given solid marks in previous years.

Immigration Showdown Looms

Immigration reform also looms as a political flashpoint once Congress returns to Washington in early September. Leaders of both political parties are eagerly awaiting what executive action President Barack Obama may take on the immigration issue, having vowed in June to take action if Congress did not. Well, they did not. Now the stage is now set for yet another political confrontation on immigration reform less than two months before Americans go to the polls in November.

Several Republicans are already warning the president that whatever he wants to do on his own on immigration reform will spark a strong reaction on their side. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a likely Republican presidential contender in 2016, wants to tie the immigration issue to the impending congressional debate over renewing funding for the federal government. The budget will be one of the top priorities for Congress when it returns, and some conservative Republicans in the House are already raising the possibility of another government shutdown if the president takes unilateral action on immigration that they deem as too sweeping.

Risks for Republicans

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate are resisting any shutdown talk for now. But one of the leaders of the anti-immigration reform movement in the House, Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa, told the Des Moines Register newspaper that if the president takes “unconstitutional” action to “legalize millions…the public would be mobilized and galvanized and that changes the dynamic of any continuing resolution and how we might deal with that.” Some Republicans may also be tempted to revive talk of impeachment depending on what the president does regarding immigration.

In a fundraising letter to conservatives, King warns President Obama against any amnesty plan for immigrants who arrived in the country illegal. As he puts it: “That means any unconstitutional amnesty order must be met with articles of impeachment.”

In his latest comments on immigration reform, the president raised the possibility that whatever he decides to do may not happen for a while yet, a timeline that might slip until after the midterm elections. That would no doubt please several Democratic senators in tight races who fear a backlash from conservatives on Election Day should the president act unilaterally on the immigration issue. Expect the political battle over immigration to play out right through the elections on November 4.

Democrats are eager to highlight the Republican talk about a possible government shutdown and even impeachment. They believe a Republican focus on bringing the government to a halt would help them in the midterm battle for control of the Senate, where several close races will tip the balance of control one way or the other.

Most analysts and pollsters give Republicans an excellent chance of picking up enough Senate seats in November to claim a majority next January. Republicans need to gain six Senate seats now held by Democrats to gain a majority without losing any of the seats they currently held. University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato reports that Republicans are likely to gain six to seven seats in November, just enough to claim a majority. He and others also predict modest gains for Republicans in the House of Representatives, where they already have a sizable majority.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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