Panel: Obama's approach to Ukraine hurting public perception

CNN
Monday, March 3, 2014 - 9:27am

President Barack Obama's handling of international conflicts with Russia has not helped his falling approval rating, as Americans wait to see how he will respond to Russia's military moves in the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, said Obama's stand-back approach to foreign policy during his tenure as president has been pretty popular in theory, but his recent woes in Ukraine and Syria demonstrate problems with his approach, which Douthat called "very confused and uncertain."

"When you draw lines, say you're going to use military force, back off - and then we're seeing this in Ukraine, where we're saying there are consequences and we're not sure what those consequences are and so on - it just becomes a problematic dynamic," Douthat said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Some people, however, do not believe that Obama's handling of Syria and Russia is the main reason for his plummeting numbers. Amy Walter, the national editor for The Cook Political Report, believes that feelings about domestic issues are being projected onto Obama's handling of international matters, specifically concerning Ukraine and Russia.

"Look, people are frustrated about the pace of the economy," Walter said on "State of the Union." "They don't feel like things are getting better fast enough. They sure didn't like the rollout of Obamacare, and they don't like what they're seeing in Washington in terms of the constant back and forth and the fighting. That means that the President's numbers suffer across the board."

Walter added that the biggest problem the public has with Obama is that his administration "just seems unmoored and unfocused about the things that they care about."

Bill Burton, who served as the deputy White House press secretary from 2009 to 2011, also believes that the negative perception of Obama's foreign policy is driven by unhappiness about problems back home.

"The unfortunate news here is that as things with Obamacare are getting better - we're starting to hit some of the marks on targets, and the website's working well and people are getting insured - that now the news from the Ukraine is going to completely block that out and people aren't going to hear about it as much as they would," Burton said.

Foreign policy is not perceived the same way as domestic issues by the American public, according to Burton, and thus it would be unlikely for Obama to see an increase in his approval rating as a result of his what he does about the crisis in Ukraine.

"I think it's too soon to say how this is going to play out in the Ukraine, but I think in American politics, you don't get too much credit for having a nuanced strategy when it relates to foreign policy in, short of being in a war or handling some crisis in a very decisive way, like when we got the pirates and saved Capt. Phillips," Burton said.

Douthat agrees that foreign policy can be a thankless duty of the presidency, but he believes that Obama has failed to do what's needed with regard to international conflicts, especially in his second term.

"The President has an obligation not to let crises get out of hand. I think you have to judge on results, and the President has had better results in his first term than either in the Syria controversy or now in Ukraine," Douthat said. "I think there's a reason for that, that the choices he's made have literally emboldened actors in that part of the world who think that the U.S. doesn't have a strategy -- which frankly, it doesn't seem to have."

While Walter sees foreign policy as a challenge that the Republican Party will have to address in the 2016 election cycle, Douthat believes the crisis in Ukraine can unite the different factions of the GOP.

"Even John McCain, as far as I know, has not called to send 50,000 troops to police the Ukrainian-Russian border, so that means both the hawks and noninterventionists can agree that we need to take the strongest possible line against Putin -- and maybe then focus on attacking the President," Douthat said.

Biden eyeing 2016 run

The panelists also discussed Vice President Joe Biden's prospects for a presidential run in 2016.

Biden finds himself in an unusual position, as the vice president but not the apparent front-runner. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads in most polls, though neither she nor Biden has announced a decision to run in the next election cycle.

"Beyond Dick Cheney, who took himself out of the running, when was the last time you had a two-term sitting vice president not considered the front-runner for the nomination?" Walter said to CNN's Candy Crowley. "He should be right out front, but you're right, this is somebody who knows that he's not the first choice of the party."

Clinton was also seen by some to be the front-runner back in 2008 before falling to Obama, but Clinton's poll numbers are far better going into 2016 than they were going into 2008, according to Douthat. He added that the assumption is that if anyone is going to challenge Clinton, it would not be Biden, but some new face in the party.

"The reality is that the only way (Biden) would possibly beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary is if he personally climbs in a fighter jet in the next couple of hours, flies to the Crimea, punches several Russian soldiers in the face and then does it 15 more times between now and the election," Douthat joked.

Burton said Clinton is further ahead than any other front-runner in the history of Democratic politics. He said there is a lingering energy and animosity from the 2008 election from people who felt that Clinton was robbed of the Democratic nomination, which contributes to her position as the heavy favorite to win the nomination in 2016. But Burton added that Biden would make an "extraordinary president."

"He has a very impressive resume," Burton said. "The experience he would bring to the Oval Office would be unparalleled, really, with many modern presidents."

Long before anyone wins the Democratic nomination in 2016, the party faces a tough fight this year against the GOP in the midterm elections. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, if the midterm elections were held today, 42% of registered voters would vote Republican while only 39% would vote Democratic. When asked about their opinion on their own party, 85% of Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of their party while only 67% of Republicans found the GOP to be favorable.

"The bigger problem right now for Republicans is they can win this election, they can do very well in the midterms, but their overall approval rating is so low that they go into 2016 with an image that is so tarnished and so laden with negatives that it's going to take more than just one good election to get rid of that," Walter said.
 

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