In a World of Complications, Obama Faces a Re-election Test (NY) TIMES) By PETER BAKER WASHINGTON 06/18/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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WASHINGTON — For Barack Obama, a president who set out to restore
good relations with the world in his first term, the world does not
seem to be cooperating all that much with his bid to win a second.
That reality has been on vivid display in recent days. Europe has
seemed unable to contain its rolling economic crisis to just Greece.
The Syrian conflict has intensified as the United Nations suspended
its observers’ mission amid the violence. Egypt’s popular revolution
is at risk of being reversed by the military. And the Russians are
cracking down at home and rattling sabers abroad.
As President Obama left on Sunday for an international summit meeting
in Mexico, the daunting array of overseas issues underscored the
challenges for an incumbent who is trying to manage global affairs
while arguing a case for re-election. Although American voters are
not particularly focused on foreign policy in a time of economic
trouble, the rest of the world has a way of occupying a president’s
time and intruding on his best-laid campaign plans.
If anything, the dire headlines from around the world only reinforce
an uncomfortable reality for this president and any of his
successors: even the world’s last superpower has only so much control
over events beyond its borders, and its own course can be
dramatically affected in some cases. Whether from ripples of the
European fiscal crisis or flare-ups of violence in Baghdad, it is
easy to be whipsawed by events.
The trick for any president, of course, is in not seeming to be
whipsawed, even as his challenger presents him as weak and
ineffectual in shaping international events. If a president cannot
stand tall in the world, the argument goes, he is not up to the task
of governing in a complicated age.
“Both candidates have to pretend that the U.S. presidency is far more
influential over events than it really is,” said Stephen D. Biddle, a
scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. The obvious example is
the European economic situation, which has profound implications for
the American economy but is largely out of American hands.
“But to admit this is to look weak or to seem to evade
responsibility,” Mr. Biddle said. “So both candidates tacitly agree
to pretend that their policies are capable of righting the American
economy while their opponent’s would sink it, when the reality is
that both are in thrall to foreigners’ choices to a degree that
neither would acknowledge.”
Mr. Obama’s trip to Mexico for a gathering of the Group of 20 leaders
is his third international summit meeting in a month, reflecting the
pull of priorities for any incumbent. While he confers in Los Cabos,
his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will tour swing states. “I’ve
still got my day job,” as Mr. Obama put it at a California fund-
raiser last month.
The president will talk with European leaders about pulling out of
the financial spiral after Sunday’s election in Greece, which gave
the pro-bailout party a slim victory and the right to form a
coalition government. He will also meet with President Vladimir V.
Putin of Russia just days after the Obama administration accused
Moscow of supplying arms to Syria in its bloody crackdown on the
Just as Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin meet for the first time as
presidents, their underlings will sit down in Moscow for the latest
round of talks with Iran that are intended to curb Tehran’s nuclear
program. The optimism over these talks this spring seems to have
faded into fears of a further impasse that would play into Iran’s
Little of this has played out on the campaign trail. In the latest
New York Times-CBS News poll, only 4 percent of Americans picked
foreign policy as their top election concern. Over all, polls show
Mr. Obama with a double-digit advantage over Mr. Romney on foreign
Yet Mr. Romney has occasionally turned to foreign policy to bolster
his broader attempt to portray Mr. Obama as a failed president. On
Saturday, he told a conservative coalition that when it came to
Israel, he would “just look at the things the president has done and
do the opposite.” On the CBS News program “Face the Nation” on
Sunday, Mr. Romney said that on Iran “I would be willing to take
military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a
nuclear threat to the world.”
Some Romney advisers said Mr. Obama was too willing to avoid
accountability by presenting himself as a powerless bystander.
“These crises reflect an absence of leadership from the Obama
administration,” said Kristen Silverberg, a former State Department
official under President George W. Bush who is advising Mr.
Romney. “He sat out the Iran protests, has faltered on Syria and let
the Russians know he’ll be even more ‘flexible’ after our election.
Global security and the strength of the global economy depend on
strong U.S. leadership and a president who believes in America’s role
in the world.”
Jamie M. Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a
conservative group, said there was a growing sense “that what is
required is American leadership rather than the president’s leading-
from-behind foreign policy that has failed to address an imploding
Syria, a nuclearizing Iran, an economic crisis in Europe and a
While foreign policy can pose its challenges, it has advantages for a
president. Flying around the world on Air Force One to meet with the
likes of Mr. Putin conveys a statesmanlike stature. It allows him to
brush off criticism as just politics, as his campaign did with Mr.
Romney’s comments about Israel over the weekend.
“Mitt Romney is yet again trying to score cheap political points by
distorting President Obama’s record of support for Israel,” Ben
LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “Our
relationship with Israel is too important for Governor Romney to play
politics with it.”
Mr. Obama assumes foreign policy will be an advantage for him,
particularly because of his record of pulling troops out of Iraq,
helping topple the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya,
taking robust action against terrorists and authorizing the raid that
killed Osama bin Laden.
He is the “first real national security Democrat” since President
John F. Kennedy, said James M. Goldgeier, dean of American
University’s School of International Service. “He looks and acts like
a commander in chief. So yes, the euro crisis, Syria, Iran, etc., can
cause him problems. But Romney has his work cut out for him on
Nancy E. Soderberg, a national security aide and United Nations
diplomat under President Bill Clinton, says it is “par for the
course” that an incumbent has to address international challenges
while the challenger has a free ride.
But for all the attention on Syria, Egypt and other areas of
conflict, the most important crisis for Mr. Obama remains the
European economy because of its impact at home. “Europe’s weakness is
likely to blow back on Obama’s efforts this fall — just at the wrong
time,” she said. “He’ll have to run harder because of it.” (Copyright
2012 The New York Times Company 06/18/12)
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