Republicans are hoping they have finally found the secret to taking on President Barack Obama — by portraying him as overly apologetic about U.S. misdeeds and naive about engaging unfriendly regimes abroad.
But tagging Obama as a “Jimmy Carter Democrat” on foreign affairs and national security may prove a difficult critique to make stick - at least for the moment.
That is because Obama and his aides have sought to inoculate themselves against the charge with a simple defense: This is what the public voted for in November.
The White House says Obama made clear that his foreign policy approach called for engagement and admitting mistakes where warranted and that voters embraced that sharp break with eight years of the Bush administration.
So for now, Republicans may find little political headway by bashing Obama for his cordial handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the release of so-called torture memos and other recent moves that have been criticized by Vice President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and some Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Though there are risks to Obama’s approach, there are also potential rewards — and in most cases, neither will be apparent for months at the earliest. And for the moment, the public is still giving Obama good marks for his handling of foreign affairs.
“Right now, the weight of public opinion is still with the administration and not with the Republicans,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“Americans are open to the idea that negotiations are part of our future,” although, Zelizer added, “they are looking for what comes after the handshake.”
In other words, at some point, Obama’s fondness for engagement with foes and rivals and his willingness to dismiss arguments of the past will have to show results, or the Republican critique could start cutting into the president’s approval ratings and undermining his foreign policy approach.
Until then, Republicans face an uphill struggle at getting much traction with their critique, said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former press secretary: “It’s as if cosmetics and pageantry are more important than the substance of foreign policy in the age of Obama.” Fleischer agreed that Obama is getting something of a pass from a domestic-focused American public.“But that only lasts so long,” he warned.
James Carafano, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, said Republicans “can rally the troops and get it on the record, but it’s very hard to break the momentum [of the Obama administration] until reality intrudes.”
The reality for Obama overseas has proved remarkably positive so far. His first trip overseas, to Europe, gave Americans a glimpse of a popular president abroad — for some, a welcome change from the anti-Americanism that often greeted Bush.
Obama headed to a summit in Trinidad and Tobago after the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips by Navy SEALS — an episode whose outcome stood in stark contrast to the long-running Iranian hostage crisis that crippled Carter’s presidency.
But every president eventually faces a national security crisis that tests his policies.
Another major terrorist attack against the U.S. or its interests abroad could sharpen criticism from former Bush administration officials of Obama’s counterterrorism polices, including the release of largely unredacted Justice Department memos describing interrogation procedures.
Administration officials insist that the decision to release memos describing the use of waterboarding and other harsh techniques against Al Qaeda prisoners does not diminish U.S. safety, especially since Obama has committed not to use the techniques in the future. The decision to outlaw the techniques may make the U.S. safer by removing a major complaint that Muslims have about the U.S., officials argued.
But former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden and others have argued that revealing details of the interrogations reveals to terrorists how far the U.S. is willing to go during questioning, which he said could diminish intelligence information obtained from interrogations and make it harder to detect ongoing plots.
Support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies “is much more precarious in that Americans have been confused” about how far the U.S. should go in attempting to prevent future terror attacks, said Zelizer.
The White House is clearly aware that engagement without results is not a viable course, which is why spokesman Robert Gibbs pointed to Venezuela’s offer to send an ambassador back to Washington as an early example of a concrete achievement of engagement with Chavez.
But Cheney joined the Republican critique Monday, telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Obama’s handshake with Chavez could lead “foes” of the U.S. to “think they’re dealing with a weak president.”
Even some Democrats were wary of that Obama-Chavez photo — with at least one hoping Americans wouldn’t recognize the Venezuelan leader.
“On the one hand, it probably wasn’t the most opportune photo op for the president. On the other hand, the honest truth is Americans don’t have the same kind of visceral reaction to Hugo Chavez that we do to Saddam Hussein, or even to [Fidel] Castro,” one Democratic strategist said.
Obama also has been careful to inject caution into the discussion of what is possible by reaching out to longtime foes. In the case of Cuba, he responded to an offer from Raul Castro of broad talks with the United States by laying out a series of demanding steps for Cuba to take, including the release of political prisoners and adoption of democratic reforms. Obama acknowledged that the U.S. policy toward Cuba “hasn’t worked,” but he played down the possibility of quick improvement in relations.
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, was with the president at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas and wanted Obama to be more forceful about U.S. demands at the conference.
“I wish the president would have taken the opportunity to speak about [human and political rights issues in Cuba] and remind those countries who want to forget about the brutality of the Castro regime,” Mack said. Still, Mack, noting the presence of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, conceded that “the environment here was pretty well-stacked against the president.”
On Iran, though, the administration’s preference for engagement will have to produce gains relatively quickly. Having declared it unacceptable for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability, Obama will face increasing pressure as months pass to show that engagement with Tehran can actually succeed in restraining its nuclear activities.
White House officials have been very careful not to remove options such as harsh sanctions or even military action from the table, which gives Obama room to switch course if outreach to Iran proves fruitless.
The high-wire act that Obama is now embarked upon with the Iranians became even more evident Monday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered an inflammatory speech at a U.N. conference on racism in Geneva that attacked the United States and Israel, prompting a walkout by many delegates. The U.S. was boycotting the conference already, but the episode pointed up the danger the U.S. faces of a blowup as it proceeds with its outreach to Tehran.
Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.