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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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Comments page of 2
by: aallison from: CA
September 02, 2014 11:30 AM
Re: "Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power".
I. for one, am sick and tired of "it's not his fault". The absence of a coherent foreign policy is a significant factor in the chaos.
In Response

by: Eric L from: New Jersey
September 02, 2014 3:55 PM
When did the United States have a coherent foreign policy? We talk about how every country should be a democracy while supporting Gulf Monarchies. We condemn Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons while ignoring the diplomatic issue of Israel's nuclear program.

by: Lone Eagle from: Bangkok, Thailand
September 02, 2014 4:37 AM
I was surprised to learn that Larry Sabato predicted GOP gains for both the Senate and House. Surprised because we recently returned our absentee ballots to Virginia and it was not rocket science as to why I and my sons voted for Democrats. My daughter also an absentee voter will also vote and the likelihood of her voting for the GOP is slim to none and slim left town. I wonder if Sabato's prediction factors in American overseas voters. If not then quite possibly his prognostication for November that the GOP will gain control of the Senate, when in fact it does not may well be the biggest surprise of all.

by: Mr nobody from: usa
September 02, 2014 12:59 AM
"Some Republicans may also be tempted to revive talk of impeachment depending on what the president does regarding immigration"

I have never heard a Republican, or any other party member speak of immigration and impeachment.

Changing the law is ok... That is debatable and fair and subject to due process. But there is no public consent for changing immigration law.

Breaking the immigration law is unfair to those who obey it.

Suggesting that Republicans are targeting Obama for impeachment over legal immigration is fear mongering at best.

Perhaps you meant illegal immigration.

by: Kevin from: Centerport ny
September 01, 2014 10:12 PM
Anyone who thinks we should send troops to fight ISIS please go! Sell your valuables, fly over there, give your money to the faction of your choice, pick up a weapon and fight. But don't send our kids and don't waste our tax money because military intervention JUST DOESN'T WORK!

We replace one nutcase with another nutcase who's fighting us with the weapons and money we left behind.

It just doesn't work!

by: meanbill from: USA
September 01, 2014 5:29 PM
Think about it?.. Obama is indecisive and hesitant and waiting for the publics opinion and consensus on what action he should take before making any decisions, isn't he?.... and thousands die, while he waits to make a decision, (afraid), of making a mistake?.... (indecision, and more indecision).... America and the world waits, for the leader of the greatest country on earth, with the greatest military forces in the history of the world, (dithers), while trying to arrive at some kind of a decision?..
FEAR of making a decision, (on Ukraine and the (ISIL) army), at this most decisive time in history after the 3:00am phone call came, over a month ago, isn't it?.... (and thousands die), while he waits, to make the decision he has to make, don't they?
In Response

by: Kevin from: Centerport NY
September 01, 2014 10:06 PM
Or.... He's too smart to get suckered into the same ego traps that caught Bush.

I mean, get serious for a second. It's not like any of our Middle East intervention has done any good. We CREATED ISIS be the power vacuum we left by destabilizing Syria.

And honestly. We kill more innocents by accident than the terrorists do on purpose. America is the scary one.

by: TC from: US
September 01, 2014 2:12 PM
The issue is we have a Republican party now saying hundreds of US people have joined ISLS. We send emergency aid and we spend 7.5 mil in Iraq alone a day. Where is the aid for the U.S. population? Where is the rebuilding we do in every other country? Is it because the money has a trail when spent and lost here?

Russia.. If Mexico had a war, would we not protect our boarders? would we do less? No.. it's propaganda. Let me correct that. Russia has military protecting it's border, we have a one way road in.We do not have undocumented people we have illegal. any other country gives them a quick boot out. I am disgusted in the whole process and will vote to expel all incumbents of any party. The system is broke and I don't care about the world while we are suffering.

by: Randle from: America
September 01, 2014 2:05 PM
Makes me sick to my stomach to read all the little Marxist comments on here supporting the Democratic Marxist Party and their stinking traitor "President". There are just way too many drug using, regulation loving, homosexual pandering, atheistic, vote begging commie thieves in America today. I for one will be ecstatic when Finally, the Fit hits the Shan. Enormously happy. The look of agonizing surprise on their faces will be worth it.
In Response

by: Marko from:
September 01, 2014 10:08 PM
Record highs in the stock market.
Obama, worst Marxist ever.
In Response

by: mike from: America
September 01, 2014 9:40 PM
I'm sure your side will win by a "landslide" again.
In Response

by: Eric L from: New Jersey
September 01, 2014 7:26 PM
Literally hoping for bad things to happen on American soil. You are a real patriot. You should be prescribed psychiatric medication.

by: tiktin from: Boise, Idaho
September 01, 2014 12:49 PM
This is a balanced and thoughtful article. Let me join in commending congressman Tom Cole for his wise, courageous and statesman like remarks. I think the republican war mongers are making a big mistake. The American people do not want war.
In Response

by: Jesus Malena from: United States
September 01, 2014 2:07 PM
I would say you are right if many voters would do their due diligence in figuring out why the president is being cautious, but I feel that is not the case here. Many of the Republicans would have handed over plenty of weapons to Syrian fighters, not knowing that within them was this cancer waiting to be unleashed. As bad as ISIL is, the president knows that it is keeping both the Iranians and Syrians at bay.

How do you defeat a threat like this without helping Assad, or Iran? That is a very difficult question to answer, but that is not what many Republicans hear. As long as it isn't a Democrat in power they don't care. A Republican presidency would be in the same dilemma and play the wait game and keep ISIL at bay while keeping pressure on the Iraqi government to make concessions to include Sunnis. As well as reducing Iranian influence and maintain pressure on Assad's government to relinquish power.

by: Fear Propaganda from: Los Angeles
September 01, 2014 12:36 PM
Why are Democrats and Republicans promoting the same Fear Propaganda across all the major news networks?

by: Daniel Phelan
September 01, 2014 12:25 PM
A Republican said the president “was being commendably cautious about being involved in the middle of the Syrian civil war.”

WOW!! There are real conservatives out there!!! Maybe it's only one or two...but hey.....the GOP "the Party of sellouts and fakes" has got to get back to actually standing for something.

Bravo Tom Cole.
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