The capital of Libya was on fire, Egypt was still smoldering and Somali pirates killed four American hostages.
But at the time, last Tuesday morning, President Obama was on his way to Cleveland for a “winning the future” forum about small business.
Aides kept Obama abreast of the violent world events, but that morning’s focus was 9 percent national unemployment and a domestic economic recovery that had slowed or even stalled.
That is a smart strategy, said presidential expert Ross Baker, because while revolutionaries in the streets of foreign capitals make for more dramatic news leads, they rarely win elections.
“It’s rare that a crisis in foreign policy will really damage a presidency,” Baker said, noting that Vietnam was an exception to the rule for President Lyndon Johnson.
Still, when it comes time for voters to decide whether to reelect a president, they do it with their wallets. “The real engine of American politics is domestic politics,” he said. “What President Obama will be held accountable for is his stewardship of the economy; more than whether his response to the upheaval in Tunisia was tardy.”
But balance is key. When potential voters are hurting economically, the temptation can be to give increased time to domestic events while neglecting tumultuous events overseas.
“The economy shouldn’t be an obstacle to foreign policy and security interests,” said one national security official from President George W. Bush’s White House. “An administration has to walk and chew gum at the same time. The challenges we face at home will only be worse if we lose sight of events worldwide and disengage from supporting the needs of other people. The president has to continuously strike a balance between looking inward and gazing outward.”
Most presidents face simultaneous crises at home and abroad, although their severity varies.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s four-term span included the Great Depression and World War II. Obama came into office amid the worst economic crisis since Roosevelt’s time and with the country engaged in two wars.
But recent events in the Middle East suggest that the most volatile and dangerous region of the world, vital to American interests, is undergoing rapid epochal change. Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt have been forced from power, a terrorist-sponsoring tyrant is under siege in Libya, and other regimes in the Arab and wider Muslim world are facing popular demands for democracy and accountability.
Obama was criticized for reacting too much or too little to those developments, particularly in Egypt, a long-time and vital American ally in the region. But even Wael Ghonim, the Google engineer who helped organize the Egyptian protests, said American involvement was a side issue.
“It was good that he supports the revolution,” Ghonim said about Obama on Feb. 13 during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “But we don’t really need him.”
Unrest is now simmering in Yemen, Bahrain and Iran. “There is no question that this is an incredible time with unprecedented things happening in the Middle East that rightly commit the president’s focus and attention and his schedule changes accordingly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney. “No less pressing in priority is the economic strength and the future strength of the economy.”
Carney, who came into his job just as revolution began to engulf the Middle East, told The Hill that additional crises lengthen the president’s day [and] crowd his schedule.
But Obama will not be distracted from the agenda he outlined in his State of the Union speech, Carney said, and his focus on the economy doesn’t suffer for his attention to what’s happening around the world.
Obama’s first foreign policy test — green-lighting a Navy SEAL team to kill Somali pirates holding an American tanker captain hostage in April 2009 — seems almost meaningless compared to the historical changes and challenges that have followed.
Obama faces a world so changed by technology that revolutions can begin with the self-immolation of a fruit vendor and burn across borders through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire to protest the actions of Tunisian authorities, became a catalyst for the fast-spreading unrest.
To keep up, the presidency has also evolved. Obama has Air Force One and communications systems that keep him in touch with his national security team no matter where he is.
In Portland, Ore., this month — on a trip similar to the recent one to Cleveland — the president was touring the Intel Corporation headquarters and meeting with science fair winners. As scheduled, he moved through small, controlled events and spoke to the assembled crowd. But while the press was moving or waiting in vans, Obama was on the phone with Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDNI official challenges reports of low morale in intelligence community Why the GOP cannot sweep its Milo scandal under the rug Dems worry too much about upsetting others. That needs to stop. MORE and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
“The president’s — any president’s — bandwidth is pretty big,” Carney said. “These are hard times, but I don’t sense any stress on the system.”
For all the attention placed on foreign affairs, voters traditionally judge their presidents for how they handle domestic issues, with the economy at the top of the list.
President George H.W. Bush enjoyed approval ratings in the 90 percent range after liberating Kuwait, but fell in his reelection effort as America’s slow economic recovery failed to produce a resurgent sense of national wellbeing.
Former President Jimmy Carter is most remembered for foreign policies with disastrous consequences — the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — but his failure to address adequately the energy crisis and a crippled economy were the primary drivers behind his landslide loss to President Reagan.
Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, echoed Vice President Biden, who as a candidate warned that it would “not be six months before the world tests Barack ObamaBarack ObamaGinsburg: Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is 'very easy to get along with' Ivanka, Kushner pushed to strike climate deal criticism from executive order: report Pence: Democrats' Obamacare promises were 'fake news' MORE like they did John Kennedy.”
“Other presidents have faced difficulty balancing acts between butter and guns. Nixon and Johnson certainly come to mind, as does Ford and Carter, although none provide a comforting analogy for Obama,” Berman said. “In Obama’s case, there are things in the president’s control and others in which he must allow events to unfold.
“He needs to keep his eye on the unemployment issue at home and stick to his withdrawal plans in Afghanistan. He’s being tested, just as JFK was tested early in his brief presidency.”