Shadow Government

Are President Obama and the Democrats getting due credit for a tough on security stance?

The New York Times has expressed some surprise that President Obama has thus far reaped remarkably little political advantage from the more hawkish elements of his terrorism policies. While the public gives President Obama generally high approval for his handling of terrorism, Obama's overall approval rating has sunk dramatically. The Times concludes that it must be because economic issues have eclipsed security concerns in the minds of voters.

Doubtless that is true, but I think the Times story misses an important point: Obama's overall approval rating might be even lower were it not for the high marks the public still gives him on terrorism policy. In other words, the Times story reads like the reporter believes the puzzle needing explaining is why, given all of the terrorism successes, Obama's ratings are not higher? Perhaps the puzzle needing explaining is the opposite: why, given Obama's domestic record, is his approval rating still hovering as high as the low 40's?

More generally, however, there is another puzzle worth exploring: why have several years of fairly hawkish counterterrorism policy not improved the Democratic Party's overall brand on national security? According to Gallup, Americans still see Republicans as markedly better than Democrats at "protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats." This has long been a central part of the Republican brand, though the public's frustration with the Iraq war allowed Democrats to enjoy a temporary advantage during the last year or two of the Bush tenure.

After Obama got elected, the Republican advantage returned and has remained steady ever since. Frankly, I am surprised that Obama's genuine successes, particularly the bin Laden strike, seem not to have translated into more tangible improvements in the Democratic Party brand on this issue.

Several things, alternatively or collectively, may be at work. First, it is possible that the Democrat brand would be even worse without the hawkish Obama policy to point to; one clue in favor of this theory is that Democrats are not lagging Republicans as badly as they did in the early years after 9/11. Second, it is possible that Obama's hawkish actions alienate as many doves as they woo hawks, leaving him no better off in the polls; a clue in favor of this theory is that the percentage of respondents reporting "no difference/no opinion," has inched up in the Gallup poll from a low of 9 percent in 2008 to 13 percent whereas the percentage endorsing Republicans has stayed the same at 49 percent and the percentage favoring Democrats dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. Perhaps some fraction of the public was hoping Obama would be more dovish and now is equally dismayed by Republican and Democratic hawks. Third, it is possible that the Democratic brand is undermined by party doves who publicly complain about Obama's policies, albeit not as loudly as they complained when Bush pursued the same policies. And fourth, perhaps the public doubts the sincerity of Democratic hawkishness, viewing it as political posturing rather than a sincere expression of the party's commitment to national security.

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Shadow Government

Obama as Ike and other thoughts on the implications of the Awlaki strike

I have a few additional thoughts beyond the ones I posted earlier on the implications of the historic drone strike that killed al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen who had linked up with Al Qaeda:

* Shadow Government's house historian, Will Inboden, has chastised me for making this point before, but I am slow to learn from history (and historians) so I will make it again anyway: I think Obama's embrace of drone strikes and most of the rest of the Bush Administration Global War on Terror institutional edifice further solidifies the Bush-Obama/Truman-Eisenhower parallel. (The observant reader will note that I made this point exactly one year ago and am now making it again. Coincidence? Or is it because this is the week that my American Grand Strategy seminar studies the Truman-Eisenhower transition?) Obama, like Ike, campaigned on the premise that his predecessor had thoroughly botched the most important grand strategy challenges of the day and that he (Obama/Ike) would dramatically alter course if elected. However sincere that campaign critique may have been, once elected the new Administration ended up embracing most of the very same controversial elements -- in this case, Obama's embrace of secret legal memos to authorize unilateral uses of force outside of a formal UN process. Of course, containment policy remained a subject of bitter partisan debate after the Eisenhower Administration, but the parameters of that debate were narrowed considerably by the simple fact that Eisenhower embraced more than he replaced of the strategy he inherited from his predecessor. Obama has done the same and I expect a similar effect on the parameters of future debates over the war on terror.

* While the continuity is mostly to be praised, not all of it is beyond critique. My former colleague John Bellinger has argued that Obama may be following Bush too closely in one respect: relying on secret legal reasoning rather than going to Congress and the international community to shore up the political foundations undergirding the most controversial legal aspects of the war. Circumstances eventually forced Bush to secure more explicit Congressional authorization for controversial features of his detainee policy, but Bellinger argues it would have been preferable to lock in Congressional and international buy-in earlier. The Obama Administration is following the Bush precedent and, ultimately, may be forced to deal with Congress and the international community as Bush was. Bellinger argues that Obama would be better served by initiating the legal conversation now, rather than delaying the inevitable. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman proposes an intriguing first step: declassify the legal memo that authorized the strike that killed al-Awlaki. My guess is that this would trigger more debate than consensus, for, as another former Bush official, Jack Goldsmith, has argued, many of the opponents of drone strikes have no interest in establishing a legal framework that would permit the strikes. The opponents want to stop the strikes, period. But Goldsmith also rightly points out that that debate is inevitable so perhaps Bellinger and Harmon are on to something.

* Speaking of legal memos, I think this strike may have killed the movement to prosecute Bush-era officials involved in detainee policy. An important part of Obama's political base has never been satisfied with the previous investigations that exonerated Bush officials, and has long called for prosecuting those who acted under the legal protection of official Justice Department memos and, indeed, has called for going after the lawyers who wrote those very memos. The Obama Administration has stopped short of launching the full witch-hunt the left is demanding, and it is hard to see how they could initiate it now. Any action against Bush officials who wrote the legal memos or who acted consistent with those memos would seem to open up a precedent that exposed all of the Obama team to the same risk once Obama's successor is in office. Perhaps there is a crafty legal strategy that would snare all Bush "witches" whilst allowing all the Obama ones to evade the net. But my guess is that the Obama team will not want to put that risky strategy to the test. 

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