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

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora