photo by Flickr user Slabcity Gang
President Obama has watched his foreign policy approval ratings plunge, presumably with some dismay. But he is probably not the only one.
As Harry Enten noted at FiveThirtyEight, Obama’s foreign policy used to be perceived as a strength of his administration, at least by his supporters. But now Americans of all parties have watched how Obama handled - or failed to handle - international crises from Syria to Afghanistan to Ukraine. In the wake of controversies ranging from the National Security Agency’s spying orgy to the recent prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, approval of Obama’s foreign policy has plunged, now running behind his sagging overall approval rating instead of ahead of it.
As Obama advances toward the next rung on his career ladder, namely being paid a lot of money to write and speak about himself, these developments will have little impact on his personal prospects, though the news that more than half of the Americans polled in a recent survey believe he can no longer lead the country can’t presage anything good for the remainder of his time in office. It certainly won’t help Democrats trying to win or defend congressional seats this fall. But the fact that foreign policy has gone from a strength to a weakness may have bigger implications for one of his fellow Democrats in particular.
Specifically, what does this shift mean for Hillary Clinton? While she was not the architect of Obama’s foreign policy - he did that himself - she served as its executor for the first half of his presidency. Voters will give her a lot of the credit (so to speak) for its results, fairly or otherwise.
Obviously, this does not bode well for her, and she must know it. Doubtless it is one of the many factors she is considering as she weighs whether to run for the White House again in 2016.
Clinton’s time as Secretary of State is most closely linked to the security failure that led to four American deaths in Benghazi in 2012. If she does run, we will see endless commercials repeating her wail before Congress about whether the attack was terrorism or merely grew out of a street protest that never actually happened: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
By 2016, however, my guess is that she will be taking more heat for her failure on America’s behalf to negotiate a continued presence for U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, and in Afghanistan after 2014. The consequences, especially in Iraq and its neighbor Syria, are becoming grotesquely clear with the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Similarly, the administration’s failure to confront Russia over its aggression in Georgia helped pave the way for this year’s events in Ukraine and Crimea.
A lot of the criticism that will be directed at Clinton will be somewhat unfair, since there is no evidence that she had any real policy-making influence with Obama and his coterie of aides in the White House. But she did spend four years as the public face of his policies, thereby claiming ownership, at least in the public mind. She clearly knows this, as her recently published memoir, “Hard Choices,” focused on her time as Secretary of State in an attempt to control the conversation about her tenure in the post. It will be impossible for her to run away from the consequences of Obama’s handiwork in a presidential campaign of her own.
On the domestic side, Clinton has been able to keep her hands mostly clean of the Affordable Care Act, which is a definite plus. But she certainly has not disavowed the law - nor could she, while remaining a credible candidate for her party’s nomination. Yet by 2016, many of the administration’s postponements of the law’s most problematic features will have run out. Obama’s signature domestic achievement is liable to become a clear-cut albatross in the general election for any Democratic nominee. Clinton may decide that she is not interested in simultaneously trying to defend the law, apologize for it and find some way to fix it.
As her book’s title suggests, Clinton faces a choice. She can run on a foreign policy record that Americans of all political stripes increasingly dislike. She can disavow her own efforts for the four years she served in the executive branch - unlikely, given her actions thus far, but not inconceivable. Or she can just decide to retire from the public sector as an elder stateswoman and, in the eyes of her admirers, a role model for future political leaders. She would be able to collect millions making speeches and give away millions through her family’s foundation.
With the last option on the table, I wonder why Clinton would opt for any other. Maybe the choice won’t be so hard after all.