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

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora