In the latest round of polls, President Obama's approval ratings are lowest on the two issues that once were strengths—foreign policy and immigration. In this week's ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 31 percent of Americans approved of his handling of immigration, an issue that he recently hoped to wield as a political weapon against the Republican Party. And the same survey showed his approval on international affairs at just 38 percent—the lowest point of his presidency and an 8-point drop from late July—even as he catered to the creeping isolationist sentiment in the country.
To the White House, these numbers must come as an unwelcome surprise, given how transparently the president played politics on these issues at the expense of sound policy.
On foreign policy, the president for far too long dismissed the threat ISIS posed in the face of glaring warnings from his own advisers. While leading Cabinet secretaries, from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Attorney General Eric Holder, described ISIS as an "imminent threat" and "more frightening than anything," Obama's public tone was much more measured, even recently suggesting that containment of the jihadist group was an option. To this day, he still insists on ruling out ground troops, even as he struggles to explain how we can defeat the terrorist group's base in Syria without a greater American military presence. And many military experts are also puzzled why Obama is publicly telegraphing his strategy when it doesn't serve America's interests.
But to understand the disconnect between Obama and his advisers, you have to understand how politics drives so much of the administration's decision-making. Obama's passive public posture was a direct response to the public's longstanding war weariness, and his insistence on a limited American military role in the fight is in reaction to what the polls still show today. For months, even as ISIS made territorial gains across Iraq, the public continued to oppose any military action there. It wasn't until the gruesome beheading of two American journalists that opinion on military intervention began to shift markedly.
Support for airstrikes in Syria has now more than doubled in the past year, with a whopping 71 percent supporting military action in Iraq. Nearly nine out of 10 Americans now view ISIS as a serious threat to American interests, with 59 percent viewing it as "very serious." So the president has belatedly followed suit, and is now delivering a prime-time address Wednesday evening to outline a strategy. Such an address could have been delivered months ago, when the terrorist threat was first metastasizing and when he could have helped mobilize public opinion to the cause. The much-mocked phrase "leading from behind" isn't really accurate; for the Obama administration, it's leading where the public opinion of the moment takes them.
Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy more broadly, it's striking how much politics seeped into critical decision-making processes. In his memoir, Obama's former Defense Secretary Robert Gates chided his old boss that "everything came across as politically calculated" from his time in the administration. The president cynically increased the number of troops in Afghanistan upon taking office, only to draw them down as an election year approached. The complete withdrawal of American troops in Iraq, which created a vacuum that's now being filled by ISIS, was driven as much by a desire to fulfill a campaign promise as borne out of sound policy.
Foreign policy and immigration are entirely separate issues, but the president's handling of immigration is another example of how his administration has been hampered by an in-the-moment reading of public opinion over big-picture strategy. The White House has long been convinced that immigration is kryptonite for the Republican Party, with the issue dividing the GOP while giving Democrats the opportunity to lock in permanent support from Hispanic voters. In June, the president was so confident about his standing on the issue that he proudly declared he would act on his own, since the Republican-controlled House wouldn't follow his lead. "If Congress won't do their job, at least we can do ours," he said.
But immigration politics have never been the clear winner for Democrats that its supporters suggest—and now it's shaping up to be one of their biggest vulnerabilities for this year's midterms. As I wrote in July, public opinion on immigration is highly volatile, with current events playing a major role in shaping sentiment on the issue. The crisis on the border and the renewed threat of terrorism has increased the American appetite for tougher border security.
Politically speaking, Democrats face similar internal divisions as Republicans. The party is hoping to consolidate gains with Hispanic voters, but it risks hitting record-low support with white voters if the administration acts unilaterally on immigration reform. It wasn't long ago that Rahm Emanuel, in his role as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, recruited numerous Democratic candidates who were tough on border security to run for the House in 2006. As Obama's former chief of staff, he counseled against pushing immigration reform in the first term, recognizing how potent the issue would be for white Democratic supporters in battleground districts. Those underlying politics haven't changed much since then. And now, by backtracking on a crucial promise to Hispanic supporters, he risks losing some support from them—both for the midterms and potentially for 2016 as well.
This shouldn't have been news to the president when he delivered his punchy speech telegraphing that he would be acting alone on immigration. Back then, it shouldn't have been news that Democrats were facing an inhospitable Senate landscape, with races in Republican-friendly states and few battlegrounds with sizable Hispanic populations. It shouldn't have been news that outside of his base, the public has been growing weary of the administration's penchant for unilateral executive actions, bypassing Congress on everything from altering his health care law to foreign policy. They should have realized that opposition to unilateral action on immigration wasn't just limited to the hard-core Republican base, but a wider disaffected swath of the American public.
Foreign policy and immigration offer recent case studies of how the White House badly misread the public mood, living in the politics of the moment instead of anticipating the politics of the future. They interpreted the public's war-weariness as a mandate for inaction. With Obama maintaining largely the same inner circle from the beginning of his presidency, there's undoubtedly an echo chamber effect at work as well—only hearing the advice he wants to hear, drowning out any internal dissent.
For most successful presidents, politics is utilized as a tool by leaders to advance their favored policies. Understand the public mood, both from your supporters and detractors. Find areas of agreement to build bipartisan coalitions. President Bush, for instance, effectively used campaign-style strategies to win congressional support for authorizing the Iraq War. President Clinton forged an impressive bipartisan coalition to pass welfare reform.
But for Obama, defeating Republicans seems to take priority over achieving clear policy objectives. For him, the name of the game is the game itself.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.