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Ukraine and Obama’s Time of Testing

President Barack Obama listens to a question as he spoke about the situation in Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, July 18, 2014.
President Barack Obama listens to a question as he spoke about the situation in Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, July 18, 2014.

Presidents are used to facing global crises, but they usually don’t come all at once.  The global ramifications of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine are only beginning to play out, but there’s little doubt that President Barack Obama will be front and center.

Obama was measured but determined in White House remarks Friday.  The president said the U.S. has concluded that the plane was brought down by a missile from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists who benefit from “a steady flow of support from Russia.”  While he said it was important for all the facts to come out, the president also put Russia on notice:  “We will continue to make clear that as Russia engages in efforts that are supporting the separatists that we have the capacity to increase the costs that we impose on them and we will do so.”  The president added that “we are not interested in hurting Russia for the sake of being Russia but because we believe in standing up for the basic principle that a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has to be respected.”

Obama also said that the downing of the airliner over Ukraine should bring new impetus to a push for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the crisis.  “This certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.  The stakes are high for Europe, not simply for the Ukrainian people and that we have to firm in our resolve to ensure that we are supporting Ukraine and its efforts to bring out a just cease fire and that we can move towards a political solution to this.”

The situation in Ukraine is clearly at the top of the president’s foreign policy agenda, but that’s not to say it’s the only one drawing attention.  Israel’s ground offensive into Gaza, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the continuing immigration crisis along the U.S. southern border are all competing for the administration’s attention.  Any one of them alone would be a test for the president.  The fact that they are coming all at once presents by far the most complicated set of foreign policy challenges faced by Obama during his time in office.

Republicans have made it clear that they expect the president to take a leading role on the world stage in light of the foreign policy challenges.  Arizona Senator John McCain, the president’s Republican opponent in the 2008 election, warns there will be “hell to pay” if the shoot down of the Malaysia airliner is linked to the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.  Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York, told MSNBC that “we need more leadership from the president,” adding that it was important that Obama show himself as a “world leader” and that he line up “European economic sanctions against Russia.”

Obama’s Political Standing Worries Democrats

The foreign policy crises have erupted at a time when public opinion polls show the president is at a weak point in terms of domestic support.  Mr. Obama’s public approval ratings remain stuck in the low 40’s and congressional Democrats are increasingly worried that his unpopularity could be a crippling factor in the November midterm elections.  Part of the reason for the decline in public support for the president in general has been his handling of foreign policy, which in the past has been a strong point.

Americans are clearly fatigued from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But public opinion surveys also show they are concerned about international perceptions that the U.S. has less leverage than it used in world affairs.  Many Americans have a strong desire to avoid costly military engagements overseas, but they also want the U.S. to continue to project a sense of strength to the rest of the world and that it is willing to use its power, be it economic or military, as a force for good.

Domestically, the political concern remains the upcoming midterm congressional elections in November.  Most political analysts believe Republicans will either hold or expand their majority in the House of Representatives, despite Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s recent assertion that Democrats could gain 25 seats in November.

Analysts also say Republicans appear well-positioned to take back control of the Senate.  Republicans need to gain at least six Democratic seats to gain a majority in November, and one of the most respected political analysts in town, Charlie Cook, said this week that he thinks they have a 60 percent chance of winning the seats they need and controlling both chambers of Congress for the final two years of the Obama presidency.

Republicans may prevail in the Senate races despite the fact that their public approval ratings are actually worse than the president’s.  Cook says he doesn’t see what he calls a “wave election” at the moment for Republicans, and predicts they will pick up 6 to 12 House seats and probably at least the six Senate seats they need to reclaim the majority there.  John Fortier, a political expert with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, also sees great potential for Republican gains in the Senate this year. 

“On the Senate side there really are a lot of opportunities for the Republicans to take seats, seats that are in very Republican areas which are up for grabs,” he said.

Obama On the Offensive

Historically, the president’s party takes a big hit in congressional midterm elections during a second presidential term.   And analyst Cook says history is not on the president’s side this year. 

“Whenever you have a president and a midterm election where the president’s approval rating is well below 50 percent…it’s a problem.” 

Cook adds that Obama is headed for the last two years of eight in the White House, a dangerous time for presidents when political fatigue can set in and small problems can quickly escalate into big ones in a hurry.  

“They kind of run out of gas and bad things typically happen,” he said. 

 The president has been busy of late making the case in speeches around the country that the economy is getting better and that Democrats should get some of the credit.  He’s also fired back at Republicans who expressed an interest in trying to impeach him (former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin) or sue him in federal court over the executive actions he has ordered to get around Congress (House Speaker John Boehner).  Obama told an audience recently in Austin, Texas:  “You hear some of them.  Sue him!  Impeach him!  Really?  For what?  You are going to sue me for doing my job?”

Speaker Boehner has been quick with some barbs of his own.  Not long ago in the midst of a bad week for the Obama White House, Boehner told reporters, “You look at this presidency and you can’t help but get the sense that the wheels are coming off.”

But even as Obama gets combative and seems ready to jump back into campaign mode, it’s likely a lot of vulnerable Democrats may decide to take a pass on any offers of support.  A lot of Democratic House and Senate candidates from Republican-leaning states have already made it clear they’ll be better off on their own, and some of them are already running ads highlighting their differences with the president in a bid to win over independent voters in November.

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