After yesterday’s interview with Fox’s Lauren Green, I decided to take a closer look at her question for my column at The Week. Can Obama successfully shift the 2012 election from a referendum on the economy, where he will be at a big disadvantage, to the arena of foreign policy and war? After all, Obama has attempted to seize credit for the fall of Moammar Qaddafi, and stacked up with big wins against Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, this could be a promising line of campaigning. However, I argue that even these three scores come with heavy caveats, and the rest of Obama’s foreign policy has been a mess:
First, while Obama gets credit for taking out bin Laden, voters expected an American president to take that shot if the opportunity presented itself. Obama got a momentary boost in polling from the success of the mission, but the short duration of that bump tells the story of how successful an “I Got Bin Laden” campaign strategy will be in 2012. That will also be true of the withdrawal from Iraq, which took place on George W. Bush’s timetable rather than Obama’s. The killing of Awlaki proved a lot more politically difficult, as civil libertarians on both sides of the partisan divide questioned whether Obama had overstepped the law in targeting an American citizen for a military strike, even though most Americans seemed to have no trouble with the decision.
The case of Gadhafi is even murkier. While no one will miss the brutal tyrant, we may not like what follows next, either. Already the new regime in Tripoli has announced the imposition of certain elements of Sharia law ahead of any democratic reforms, and the death of the dictator at the hands of the militia that captured him doesn’t give a lot of confidence about the discipline of the new government’s security apparatus. Thousands of shoulder-fired missiles have gone missing, and the U.S. says that terrorist groups are trying their best to get their hands on these weapons, mostly Soviet-era SA-7s that work well against civilian and military aircraft at lower altitudes. It won’t take more than one or two successful shots at American aircraft by terrorists with these weapons to remind people how the missiles got out onto the open market in the first place.
A debate on foreign policy would also inevitably return focus to Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and that won’t be a good topic for the incumbent. Obama’s inept handling of the issue of building in Jerusalem in the early months of his presidency gave Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to bail out of direct negotiations, even though Abbas had never made the issue a deal-breaker before Obama’s intervention. The president’s demand for Israel to return to 1967 “borders” as a condition of negotiation — rather than a result of direct negotiation with the Palestinians — earned him a lecture from Benjamin Netanyahu and rebukes from Senate Democrats. Even Hamas rejected Obama’s demand (although obviously for different reasons), making Obama look foolish and unschooled on the issues.
The question may be moot anyway. Obama seems to want to take personal ownership of the economy, in a political strategy borne out of desperation:
President Barack Obama told an audience in Nevada on Monday that he will be regularly announcing “executive actions” his administration will take to “heal the economy” without the “dysfunctional” Congress.
“I’m here to say to all of you and to say to the people of Nevada and the people of Las Vegas, we can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will,” Obama said.
“I’ve told my administration to keep looking every single day for actions we can take without Congress, steps that can save consumers money, make government more efficient and responsive, and help heal the economy. And we’re going to be announcing these executive actions on a regular basis,” the president said.
This plays well for a few moments in 2011 while raising money among the true believers. However, what happens when Obama’s unilateral interventions don’t result in economic growth, but instead in more wasted billions of dollars for no real change in the current stagnation? That’s exactly what will happen with the first of his interventions in the housing market, on behalf of those who failed to act responsibly in the first place:
But consider this: if you have more than 20% equity in your home, you can’t participate. If you bought smart, paid 20% or more down and didn’t pull out equity to fuel a buying binge back in 2006, there is no help here.
Like with the bailout of Wall Street firms before it, it turns out this bailout ultimately benefits those who stretched the truth and acted irresponsibly.
The only difference between Obama’s threatened unilateral actions now and his Porkulus approach in 2009 is that he doesn’t have a Democratic Congress to approve them — in large part because of the failure of Obama’s policies in 2009 and 2010. In 2012, if Obama’s gimmicky unilateral interventions still don’t produce growth, he could personally parachute into Waziristan and capture Ayman al-Zawahiri and convert Iran’s mullahs to liberal democrats, and he still won’t escape his ownership of the economic failures of his four years in office. This is a strategy that leaves no escape route for ownership of those failures.