WASHINGTON — By now, President Barack Obama probably has a pretty good understanding of what is meant by the term, “Second Term Blues.” The president’s approval rating in leading polls is heading into dangerously low territory. The latest Fox News poll found the president dipping below 40 percent approval for the first time, down to 38 percent positive, 54 percent negative. And now adding to his woes over health care, the deficit and gridlock with Congress is the situation in Ukraine.
In the past, the public has seen Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy as a strong point. Some political strategists believe the president sealed his re-election fate on May 2, 2011, when U.S. Navy Seals carried out the raid that killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan. Mr. Obama went from an untested U.S. senator with limited foreign policy experience to a president who wound down the U.S. involvement in Iraq, continued the allied effort to secure Afghanistan and kept the homeland secure. He effectively neutralized Republican critics of his foreign policy in the 2012 campaign after a decade of Democrats being on the defensive with Republicans in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001.
But now President Obama is under fire from Republicans over his handling of the Ukraine crisis. Mr. Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain, called his foreign policy “feckless.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who seems heir-apparent to McCain’s unofficial role as a kind of shadow defense minister, blasted Mr. Obama as a “weak and indecisive president (who) invites aggression.” Some conservative columnists have also drawn comparisons with former President Jimmy Carter, who was pilloried by Republicans at the time for what they saw as a weak response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran.
President Obama is moving to avoid those comparisons by quickly imposing financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians and others who oppose the new government in Ukraine. In addition, Democrats are hitting back at the Republican claims. The Democratic National Committee sent out some talking points to loyalists, noting that Republicans did not blame President George W. Bush when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008. The memo also urges Republicans to work with Democrats to ensure that the United States presents a united front in the crisis in a constructive way instead of trying to undermine leadership during a moment of international peril.
Republican fault lines
The crisis in Ukraine is also revealing some early fault lines among potential Republican presidential contenders for 2016 on the issue of foreign policy. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is calling for a more robust U.S. response to Russia. He told a group of conservatives meeting outside Washington this week that the U.S. is the only nation “capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.” Rubio is eager to draw a contrast with another leading contender for 2016, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Paul is much more leery of U.S. military interventions abroad though his spokesman says he “rejects the label of isolationism.”
Events like the Ukraine crisis often have a kind of residual political impact on U.S. voters. The American public wants to believe that the U.S. remains the most powerful nation on earth and that it still has the influence to shape overseas events to its advantage. But the reality is in the modern world the U.S. often has limited ways to influence adversaries, especially when the adversaries know that Americans are war-weary after lengthy campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The public is risk-averse to the idea of deploying U.S. forces into conflict zones at the moment, something Mr. Obama and his advisers have to take into account as they consider their options on Ukraine and any number of other foreign policy challenges.
2016 could see the re-emergence of a more hawkish Republican view on foreign policy embodied by possible White House contenders like Senator Rubio. But even Republicans are mindful that America remains a war-weary nation and that any inclination to project U.S. military might abroad must be accompanied by a diligent effort on the home front to build domestic support and present achievable goals.
The looming midterms
The timing of the Ukraine situation is complicating Mr. Obama’s efforts to help his fellow Democrats avoid a disaster at the polls in November when the entire House of Representatives and 36 of 100 Senate seats will be on the midterm ballot. Most analysts see little chance that Democrats can take back control of the House, which Republicans won in 2010 thanks to a spirited effort by Tea Party conservatives on behalf of Republican candidates.
The real battle this year will be for control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans need a gain of six seats to win a majority in the Senate in November and right now it appears they have an excellent chance to achieve that. Many of the close races this year involve incumbent Democrats trying to win re-election in states where Republicans are strong, such as Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina. Democrats have few chances to take away a Republican Senate seat so they must play defense in an environment in which the president is unpopular and core Democratic voters are largely unmotivated.
Foreign policy generally does not play a major role in midterm congressional contests. Voters will focus on economic issues and the Republicans will try to gin up conservative voter turnout by beating the drums of opposition to Obamacare, the president’s signature health care law. But if voters take a dim view of the president’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine, it could help further depress his poll ratings and that could have some damaging consequences for Democrats running in November.
Historically the party that holds the White House for two presidential terms loses seats in the second midterm election. The other constant here is presidential approval ratings. Presidents with poor ratings tend to suffer party losses in Congress, sometimes of a substantial nature. Democrats last won the House in 2006 during President George W. Bush’s second congressional midterm election. Mr. Bush’s popularity had taken a steep dive because of the Iran War and his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.
Candidate Barack Obama was able to win the presidency in 2008 in part because of the intense Bush fatigue among the American public during his second term. Now President Obama wants to avoid the same political fate and risk setting the stage for a Republican to move into the White House in January of 2017 and possibly for Republicans to control both the House and Senate as well after the 2016 elections.