In what even The New York Times characterized as a “campaign tour,” President Barack Obama traveled to Minnesota on Thursday where he confronted the malaise which haunts his presidency and threatens to cost his party their majority in the Senate. “Cynicism is popular these days,” Obama conceded, “but hope’s better.”
Cynicism doesn’t become popular in a vacuum. The hope Obama referenced, which certainly characterized the mood of the country in the wake of his 2008 election even amid one of the worst economic downturns of the last century, had to be crushed first.
Steadily and with obstinate persistence, the president chipped away at the public trust on domestic issues – channeling his energies not into the economic recovery but into a massive overhaul of the health care system which remains unpopular to this day.
For a time, the president’s popular appeal was buoyed by his approach to foreign policy. Elected to reverse the policies of his predecessor, Obama could largely rely on his instincts when confronting challenges overseas. When the threats to American security and hegemony proliferated, however, as a result of his actions, the public began to sour on Obama’s doctrine-less approach to foreign affairs as well.
On Tuesday, Obama awoke to this nightmarish headline in The Washington Post: “Why is Obama’s foreign policy now polling like Obamacare?” This condition has everything to do with the chaos in Iraq – his legacy achievement, the crisis which he was elected to address, is still a crisis and American troops are back in Baghdad.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday, Obama was confronted with the unpopularity of his approach to foreign affairs and the growing threat posed by ISIS militants. The ABC host noted that even Obama’s own former ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has suggested that ISIS represents a greater threat to the United States than Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda.
When asked if these al-Qaeda affiliated militants are growing in strength, the president conceded that a central plank of his 2012 reelection campaign – that the terrorist network was “on the run” and “decimated” – was no longer true.
“The majority of Americans don’t support your path on foreign policy,” Stephanopoulos said. “Are you failing by your own standard?”
“I know we go back to the polls but, throughout the first half of my presidency, the polls showed strong support for my policy,” Obama replied.
“But the public has to support it, doesn’t it?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“But not at every minute, George, because there’s going to be times when the world is messy,” Obama said with a chuckle.
The president enjoyed the support of the public and a broad mandate to reshape the United States’ approach to foreign affairs because Americans no longer believed that the Bush administration’s goals in Iraq and Afghanistan were attainable. They believed Obama when he wrote in 2008 that “Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been.” It is now, and Americans feel less safe than at any point since the immediate post-9/11 period.
That’s why Obama has lost the public’s trust on foreign policy matters, and why the polls are unlikely to turn around for him soon. Betrayal is a hard thing to forgive.