News / USA

    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.


    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.

    You May Like

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.