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Obama and Libya: Scant Political Rewards

Obama and Libya: Scant Political Rewards

By Alexis Simendinger - August 24, 2011

President Obama was “gutsy” to order the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and “vindicated” after his “gamble” to back Libyan rebels who ousted Col. Moammar Gaddafi after 42 years of oppressive rule, according to praise from various commentators, including some of his sharpest critics. Yet, even the president’s least-debated achievements as head of state are unlikely to tip the political scales in November 2012 for the simple reason that the prosperity of families in, say, Tripoli, Iowa, outweighs Americans’ concern for rebel fighters in Tripoli, Libya.

Voters’ priorities are the U.S. economy and jobs, according to recent polling, not events in Libya, Iraq or even Afghanistan. Obama’s political future is tied to the American spring of 2012, not the Arab spring of 2011.

The White House isn’t counting on a bounce upward in new polls following this week’s events in Libya, and certainly not a six-point bounce like the one the president enjoyed in May after U.S. Special Forces and the CIA located and killed bin Laden. But the president’s political advisers suggest Obama can still get some reputational credit from voters for the exits of bin Laden and Gaddafi -- by becoming The Closer.

“It helps lock in and solidify the idea that he’s the guy who keeps us safe,” an unnamed senior administration official told The New York Times on Monday. “Reagan targeted Gaddafi; George W. Bush targeted bin Laden; Obama has done both.”

The president hasn’t yet made a direct case to voters that he’s the leader who keeps America safe in contrast with previous GOP presidents (or Republican presidential contenders). For one thing, such a boast is likely to fall flat; most Americans feel more threatened by ongoing domestic economic vulnerabilities than from terrorists and despots. And there’s another reality: enduring political boosts at home for accomplishments presidents deliver abroad have been dwindling since the Cold War, but the political hazards of international misadventures never go away.

By late Tuesday, with Gaddafi’s whereabouts unclear and Libya’s governance in limbo, few Americans could predict Libya’s next chapter.

That helps explain why Obama’s national security team made three points about Libya: first, that the president’s decision to involve the United States was right; second, that Obama is not responsible if anti-Gaddafi rebels prove to be wrong; and third, that the administration will not put U.S. troops into Libya. Administration officials eagerly saluted the president for his collaborating with NATO to force Gaddafi out of power, but they just as eagerly distanced the administration from expectations that violence and instability are now extinct in Libya.

“I think it would be wise for us to be realistic in expecting there will be growing pains,” said Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice during a Tuesday interview with MSNBC. “There will be challenges within the opposition coalition as people from different parts of country who have fought on different fronts, as well as civil society and youth leaders and others come together and, we hope, unite around the program that the Transitional National Council has laid out for an inclusive transition process that respects the rule of law and allows the Libyan people to have the opportunity to choose their leaders and their future peacefully.”

Asked Monday about expectations for violence and chaos in Libya, a State Department representative who returned to the United States after days of discussions with rebel leaders in Benghazi offered few assurances. “I can't predict what's going to happen, but I can say that the people have tried to work through to minimize the potential,” Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, told ABC News.

If “success” is difficult to pin down in the wake of Gaddafi’s exodus, Obama’s attendant domestic political losses may prove minor because Americans don’t identify Libya as among the top concerns facing the country, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“I don’t think this is going to be much of an issue with President Obama,” he told RCP on Tuesday. “People don’t see the United States as highly involved. They see this as NATO.”

Earlier this summer, polling found a decline in the number of Americans who said they backed U.S. involvement (undertaken with other countries) to enforce international sanctions against Libya. An operation in March to end Gaddafi’s reign in Tripoli was taking longer than the administration envisioned, and the public heard lawmakers objecting to military involvement without approval from Congress. The president responded that he did not need congressional approval because unmanned drones rather than U.S. troops were being used.

Gallup reported that the percent of Americans who said they approved “of the current U.S. military actions in Libya” dropped eight points over three months, from 47 percent in mid-March to 39 percent in mid-June.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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