Can Obama Win as a War President?

With high unemployment and minimal job growth, Obama can't run on the economy. Can he win as commander in chief?


The Republicans aiming for the White House might be well-advised to pack it in on foreign policy for a while and cede the field to President Obama. While they've got a case to make against his economic stewardship, their national security critiques are increasingly at odds with the facts on the ground.

The narrative from Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and other candidates is that Obama is a weakling who continually apologizes for America, doesn't believe we're exceptional, cedes leadership to other nations, mistreats Israel, and is overseeing our march toward lesser-power status. The problem with those narratives is that they are, for the most part, false -- and obviously so.

Obama has brought his party close to parity with the Republican Party when it comes to which one voters trust more to keep the nation safe. In a world ever more complicated, dangerous and economically fragile, he can make a strong argument that he deserves re-election based his record as commander in chief. That may not be enough to offset the pain of the recession and voters' desire for change, but Republicans are bolstering his case in at least two ways: One, some are making unforced errors on foreign policy and two, as they court conservative primary voters, the GOP candidates may be misreading the type of foreign policy most Americans want.

The operating assumption among most of them is that the public yearns for the good old bellicose days when George W. Bush divided the world into with us or against us, talked about the axis of evil, invaded two countries, and decided we would stick around indefinitely to rebuild them as modern democracies. Yet Obama's election was a rejection of that approach. The public had turned against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and remains against them. People have even been wary of Obama's limited deployment of U.S. military and diplomatic muscle in Libya, though it was in concert with NATO and Libyan rebel forces and there were no U.S. troops on the ground there.

Now Obama has announced that by the end of the year nearly all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq, a move which Romney and Michele Bachmann attacked as a negotiating failure that put U.S. victories at risk, but which will no doubt seem overdue to some of the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war.

Furthermore, Obama has an unmatched record of targeting and killing terrorists and helping others to do so. The list starts with Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden, but it hardly ends there. ABC News includes nearly two dozen "senior terrorists" on a list it headlines "The Terrorist Notches on Obama's Belt." And Americans have noticed. A new AP poll finds that 64 percent approve of how Obama is handling terrorism.

What's more, whether it's killing terrorists or navigating the Arab Spring, Obama has been for the most part quiet and judicious and has avoided igniting anti-American sentiment across the globe. The image of the United States abroad improved when he was elected and "views toward the U.S. and Obama remained mostly positive across much of the world" in 2010 and 2011, the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported last month.

While there was a backlash against American power during the Bush presidency, Pew reports that now there are anxieties overseas about a perceived decline in U.S. power due to the rise of China and the troubled global economy. Republicans are trying to exploit that perception, which is also a nagging concern at home, and blame it on Obama.

Obama is second to none in his talk about the need to out-compete China, and is increasingly accusing the GOP of blocking his plans to help America "win the future." Still, this presents an opening for the Republican hopefuls, especially given the Democratic Party's historically weak standing on national security issues. They also have an opening in Obama's detached, low-key leadership style, which can mask the roles he, his administration and the country are playing on the world stage.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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