Obama the Statesman

PRINCETON – The world may see Barack Obama as a leader weakened by the intractability of American domestic politics, but, as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up, the American public still sees him as a strong, capable leader in foreign affairs. Some 49% of Americans approve of his overall handling of foreign affairs, with 63% approving of his approach to terrorism and 52% approving of the withdrawal from Iraq. Contrast that with the 30% of Americans who approve of his handling of the economy, or the scant 26% who back his approach to the federal budget deficit.

With numbers like that, it would hardly be surprising if Obama tried to keep voters focused on foreign affairs in 2012, with high-profile initiatives like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma (Myanmar), carefully brokered diplomatic deals, and important international conferences at home, such as the NATO summit in Chicago in May. But presidential trips overseas in the coming election year are likely to backfire at home, particularly with unemployment above 9%.

The Obama administration knows the iron law of American politics – “It’s the economy, stupid” – as well as anyone else. Nevertheless, highlighting Obama’s ability to get things done abroad is more than an attempt at distraction; it also sends the message that the domestic-policy impasse is not his fault. So expect plenty of foreign-policy news in the coming months.

Election-year tactics aside, American voters are right. Obama has performed much better in foreign policy than in domestic policy, which is all the more surprising given the weak hand that he was dealt: an America that had lost its moral authority, its military invincibility, and its credibility as an economic model.