No one in 2008 could have anticipated that the greatest triumphs and signature moments in Barack Obama's presidency would come in the realm of foreign affairs. But with the reports Thursday of the capture and possible death of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Obama's successes overseas now dwarf his domestic accomplishments.
President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House …
Under Obama's watch, the foreign dictators responsible for the most American deaths — Qaddafi and Osama bin Laden — are gone , giving a measure of justice to the thousands who died on Sept. 11, 2001 and the 270 killed in the downing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Add to the terrorist toll Anwar al-Awlaki killed just last month, and add the winding-down of the war in Iraq and the president has a record Democrats will be eager to run on in 2012.
The problem for the Democrats and for Obama, of course, is that foreign policy is likely to be at best a minor factor in next year's presidential campaign. Americans today — and voters next year — are focused almost entirely on the domestic economy. Foreign policy has been little more than an after-thought at the Republican candidate debates this year, with Obama taking a beating for his Libya policy. The numbers in Gallup have been consistent this year when voters are asked to name the most important problem facing the country. Month after month, between 73 and 76 percent have named economic problems, with only 1 or 2 percent naming wars or terrorism or overseas issues.
(PHOTOS: Qaddafi Through the Years)
That is unlikely to change regardless of the news from Misrati or Tripoli. The killings of bin Laden, al-Awlaki and Khan did not even slow the GOP contenders from their favored lines of attack. They would much rather blast him for what they see as his "apologies" for America than credit his successes as commander-in-chief.
This makes Obama just the latest in a long line of presidents to confront the reality that Americans rarely vote on their foreign policy concerns. That benefited Obama in 2008, first against the more-world-savvy Hillary Rodham Clinton and then against the war hero John McCain. Obama did just enough to pass the foreign policy threshold but still lagged far behind McCain at the time of the election when voters were asked which candidate they trusted to handle foreign policy and defend against terrorist attacks.
The president who suffered most memorably from this reality was President George H.W. Bush after his big victory in the Persian Gulf War pushed him to 91 percent approval. His chief of staff, John Sununu, infamously downplayed the need for a new domestic agenda and declared in 1990 that "there's not a single piece of legislation that needs to be passed in the next two years." The voters had another idea and tossed Bush out of office, replacing him with a Democrat who pledged to focus on the economy "like a laser."
And Libya is no Persian Gulf War. Libya is a military operation the American public never warmed to, never really understood and never paid much attention to, according to pollsters. They were unhappy when allied military operations began on March 18 and remained skeptical even after the president pledged there would be no American boots on the ground. Throughout, it was hard for the news about Libya to break through stories about Hurricane Irene and economic hardship.
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"There was a good deal of interest in Libya during the first week of NATO bombing but relatively little since then," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. He said that in the week that rebels captured Qaddafi's compound, only 22 percent said they were following the story very closely.
And those who did follow Libyan developments were less than enthusiastic about Obama's policy. A Fox News poll conducted Aug. 29 to 31, found that only 30 percent favored the U.S. military involvement. A majority of 55 percent opposed it, with 14 percent unsure. The opposition included 66 percent of Independents, 58 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats. More recently a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 61 percent of the public views Obama's foreign policies as favorable. The same poll shows they generally disapprove of his job performance.
Numbers like those are why Obama never ran to be a foreign policy president.
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