Obama dominates global summits, but do U.S. voters care?

McClatchy NewspapersMay 22, 2012 

— President Barack Obama dominated the world stage over the weekend, convincing European leaders to embrace growth-stimulating economic policies along with austerity and securing NATO commitments for his exit strategy from Afghanistan.

The administration declared both global confabs a success and analysts said the president got credit for managing the intricacies of global diplomacy.

But with Obama shifting Wednesday to domestic and campaign considerations during a two-day visit to swing states and fundraisers, political analysts say the advantage of an incumbent president making gains on the world stage may not carry all that much punch.

“It’s all going to come back to the economy,” said Kenneth Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Obama will deliver the commencement address Wednesday night at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “Foreign policy rarely resounds, especially when the economy is as weak as it has been.”

Obama himself linked the two as he left the NATO summit Monday in Chicago, noting that ending the war in Afghanistan would allow the U.S. to “start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we’ve been making in Afghanistan here back home, putting people back to work, retraining workers, rebuilding our schools, investing in science and technology, developing our business climate.”

But Bickers suggested that much of the coverage of the NATO summit in Chicago wasn’t about the high-level diplomatic talks among leaders on Afghanistan, but rather featured footage of baton-wielding Chicago police confronting protesters.

“If it bleeds it leads, and that’s what we saw,” Bickers said.

The White House said Tuesday that the events at the two summits addressed “weighty substantive issues” and that Obama didn’t view them “through a political lens.”

“Most Americans simply want to make sure that their president is working with his European counterparts to advise the Europeans on a way forward for them that creates the kind of stability . . . the people in these European countries clearly want, and obviously that would be beneficial to our economic growth,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

But Obama’s campaign has played up his foreign policy credentials, most notably with an ad featuring former President Bill Clinton, who lauded Obama’s decision to take out Osama bin Laden. And Obama offered his own stewardship of the U.S. economy as a role model for Europe to resolve its debt crisis.

Carney pointed to Obama’s national security record when he was asked Tuesday about former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who endorsed Obama in 2008 but has been reluctant to do so this time.

Carney noted that it was “up to him and every American to decide whom they will support going forward,” adding that, “In the national security realm, which has, I think, particular resonance with Gen. Powell, the president’s record has been judged to be exemplary by outside observers and commentators.”

Heather Conley, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research center, suggested that the president’s performance showed “a dedicated multilateralist that works through all the messiness of multilateral diplomacy to achieve U.S. objectives.”

But, she noted, “unless there’s an action-forcing event – something with Iran, North Korea, this (election) is not going to be about foreign policy. It’s going to be on the economy.”

Though the administration has clearly sought to put the onus on Europe to resolve its debt crisis, some analysts suggested that Obama is now even more closely tied to Europe’s future after the G-8 summit.

“If Europe stabilizes, it won’t guarantee that he’ll win, but if it unravels, it could really jeopardize his campaign,” said Domenico Lombardi, the president of the Oxford Institute for Economic Policy in England and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based center-left research center. “He could be held accountable for a crisis he really has nothing to do with.”

Noted Bickers: “If Europe’s economy begins to improve, he can claim a measure of success. On the other hand, if the story line becomes he spread his policies to Europe and it went south, it hurts his claims moving forward.”

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com

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