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February 03, 2011

Analysts: Obama Has Political Stake In Egypt Crisis

by Jim Malone

This past week’s events in Egypt have dominated U.S. domestic news media coverage and pushed domestic politics into the background for most Americans.  The Egyptian crisis presents President Barack Obama with a major foreign policy challenge, and experts say how he handles it could have an impact on his own re-election prospects in 2012.  

For his first two years in office, President Obama was squarely focused on domestic issues.  But events in Egypt continue to dominate the administration’s agenda.

On Friday, following a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Obama renewed his call for a peaceful political transition in Egypt. "The only thing that will work is moving an orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, a representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people," he said.

For the most part, congressional Republicans have said little about the president’s handling of the crisis, and seem in general agreement with the administration’s approach of encouraging a peaceful transition of power in Egypt.

Some potential Republican presidential candidates have been a bit more critical, especially former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

Others have been supportive, including Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels who spoke with VOA’s Kane Farabaugh. "They have approached it with proper caution and proper modesty and watchful waiting, while speaking up for principles of democracy, and it is what the United States probably should be doing," he said.

Others have offered a mix of criticism and praise, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is expected to mount another presidential campaign in 2012.  Romney spoke to ABC’s Good Morning America, saying, "Well, I think they got off to a rocky start.  I think some of the statements early on were misguided, but I think they have corrected, and they have said they want to see transition, and I think that’s right."

Political analysts acknowledge it is too early for most voters to form an impression of how President Obama has handled the Egyptian crisis.

Analyst Rhodes Cook says the domestic economy remains the crucial factor for voters looking ahead to the presidential election in 2012.  But Cook says voters expect their president to be able to deal with foreign policy challenges when they arise.

"Some presidents deal with them well and some do not.  It will have, I think, an effect on his positioning as we move forward in the next few months for the 2012 election.  But probably, overall, it will be the economy and the state of the economy as we head toward the 2012 Election Day that is ultimately determinant in whether he wins a second term or not," he said.

U.S. presidential elections are generally determined by the state of the domestic economy.  But Rhodes Cook says there are times when a foreign policy crisis has played a major role in the outcome.

President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term in 1980, in part because Americans lost faith in his ability to cope with the Iranian hostage crisis that began the previous year.

"It was one of the few times over the last quarter-century, or third of a century, when foreign policy actually helped decide an election.  In this case, it may not decide the election, but it will shape the view of both President Obama and of the Republican opposition," said Cook.

Cook says that while U.S. voters may not pay close attention to the details of the political turmoil in Egypt, they probably will form an opinion as to how the president handled the crisis, and that will shape their view of Mr. Obama as a leader. "I think, ultimately, it comes down to a situation, when you are running for re-election, do you look like you are controlling events, or does it look like events are controlling you?  So, we will get more of a sense of that as this crisis unfolds over the next few days and weeks," he said.

For the moment, U.S. coverage of the Egyptian crisis has pushed other domestic stories to the background, including a looming showdown between the president and congressional Republicans over  deep cuts in federal spending.