- - Monday, July 7, 2014


If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, foreign policy is for presidents. Yet far from being an escape hatch from domestic problems for President Obama, it is increasingly something he would like to escape from. Even more than his sizable problems at home, foreign policy threatens him where he can least afford it: his Democratic base.

It is not surprising for presidents in their second term to turn to foreign policy and to indulge in a chief executive’s version of the Grand Tour. Fatigue plays a big role — not theirs (though undoubtedly there is some), but that of the voters.

After a half-decade or so in office, preceded by at least another year of campaigning, the American public has wearied of them. They are overexposed, and thereby old news. To get what they once got here, they often turn abroad.

Mr. Obama has that incentive and more. Not only have his poll numbers slipped, but at home he confronts a host of problems. Recently, the economy was reported to have fallen 2.9 percent in this year’s first quarter — its worst performance in five years, despite an already weak recovery.

Additionally, the Supreme Court unanimously cited him for executive overreach in his non-recess appointments of National Labor Relations Board members. Of course, Obamacare has never been more unpopular.

It would be hard to look more like a lame duck at home than the president looks right now. The problem for Mr. Obama is that foreign policy is not offering a president’s normal respite from domestic problems. Instead it is a disaster list — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia. To understand how bad it is, try to name an area where things are going well.

To make things worse, America is taking note. According to the latest CBS-New York Times nationwide poll, Mr. Obama’s already low approval ratings are now being exceeded by his ratings on foreign policy.

Overall, Mr. Obama has a 40 percent approval rating and 54 percent disapproval. On foreign policy, his approval rating is just 36 percent, while his disapproval is 58 percent. In comparison, despite the worst post-World War II recovery, Mr. Obama’s job rating on the economy was 41 percent, with a disapproval of 54 percent.

To make things worst of all, this increased disapproval appears to be coming from his base — namely, Democrats. While Democrats gave Mr. Obama an overall 70 percent approval rating, they gave him just a 60 percent approval rating on his handling of the situation in Iraq, and just 39 percent thought he had clearly explained U.S. goals in Iraq.

To understand how important Democrats are for Mr. Obama right now, consider his current 40 percent overall approval rating. Democrats had to give him a 70 percent approval rating to offset a 34 percent approval rating from independents and a 10 percent approval rating from Republicans. Without overwhelming Democrat support, the president would be lost, but now foreign policy looks to be threatening that support.

Mr. Obama has supported issues dear to the left’s heart — high government spending, increased taxes, sounding alarms on income inequality and the environment, and of course, creating Obamacare. These stances have cost him dearly elsewhere on the political spectrum. Now it looks like foreign policy is being viewed askance by the left.

If so, there is no little unfairness in that perception. Taking a position to use military force is unquestionably a legitimate policy action in certain circumstances — and those circumstances can be not of one’s choosing. It is a cost of governing and falls to the president to pay it.

Mr. Obama’s problem is that for a substantial amount of the left, who make up a substantial amount of Democrats, there is little or no legitimate occasion for the use of force. Or it is so circumscribed by them that it can never pass from theoretical to reality. Thus, Mr. Obama could see erosion in his base when he has little choice but to make certain foreign-policy moves, and it could happen when he can least afford it.

Mr. Obama is hurting badly on many policy fronts right now, but none may offer a newer and a greater risk than does foreign policy. After the long experience with him on domestic issues, he has probably lost most of the ground he is likely to lose with independents and Republicans. Fortunately for him, he has retained the large bulk of his Democratic base in the process. On the other hand, foreign policy offers an entirely new area for support attrition — and ominously a unique one for attrition within his base.

This is an ironic position indeed for Mr. Obama, whose first memorable foreign-policy episode was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as a housewarming gift on entering the White House.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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