Rising gas prices and troubles in Afghanistan have jolted the White House, giving President Obama and his aides their first big test of the campaign season.
Obama has seen his poll numbers fall despite an improving national economy and the long GOP primary, and the recent news has shifted the spotlight from the Republican presidential fight to his handling of both foreign policy and the economy.
For Team Obama, that raises the uncomfortable possibility that the 2012 election will be more of a referendum on Obama’s tenure than a choice between the president and the GOP’s standard-bearer.
“If the election were held today, I think we’d win,” said one administration official. “But with gas prices and Afghanistan not going away anytime soon, it’s a little worrisome, mostly because they’re out of our control.”
Obama and Democrats have exuded confidence in recent weeks, given the improving economy and the pounding the GOP candidates have taken in their primary fight. But the president’s approval ratings suggest this fall’s election will be razor-close regardless of who wins the GOP contest.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released late Monday showed that Obama’s approval rating had fallen to 41 percent. Only 20 percent of those surveyed said they are better off now than they were four years ago, a finding that highlights the need for the White House to make the election a choice between two candidates, and not a referendum on the incumbent.
A separate Washington Post poll released Monday found that 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job, compared to 50 percent who disapprove.
While Obama still led GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in head-to-head matchups, his advantage had shrunk in the Post poll, in large part because of voter dissatisfaction with higher gas prices.
Only 26 percent of voters in that poll approved of Obama’s handling of gas prices, which averaged $3.80 per gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA.
Foreign policy has been a strong point for Obama ever since the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden, but several troubling incidents in Afghanistan have raised serious questions about the administration’s strategy for ending that war.
The White House has sought to deal with both issues by putting Obama before the public.
The president has given three speeches on his energy policy in the last few weeks, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to the White House briefing room on Monday to talk up Obama’s efforts to increase U.S. energy production.
On Tuesday, Obama offered public remarks about the alleged killing of more than a dozen Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier, a massacre that has shaken confidence in the mission.
Obama sought to reassure Americans — many of whom feel the United States has overstayed its welcome in Afghanistan — that a drawdown in the war zone is in the works.
“Make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war,” Obama said during brief remarks in the Rose Garden. “We’re steadily transitioning to the Afghans, who are moving into the lead, and that’s going to allow us to bring our troops home.”
While he said there is “no question that we face a difficult challenge in Afghanistan,” Obama expressed confidence that the United States “can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.”
Senior administration officials acknowledge that the two issues are challenging and at least somewhat out of their control.
A host of factors contributes to global oil prices, and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is partly dependent on the actions of the Afghan government and partners in NATO.
At the same time, the officials say they’re happy to have the argument about who will be a better leader on both energy and national security, two issues they say Obama has improved during his time in office.
Obama touts the accomplishments of his first term regularly in campaign appearances, and by all indications wants to run on a record of leading the economy through the worst recession since the Great Depression, restoring the U.S. auto industry and killing bin Laden.
At the same time, the White House knows it will face a challenging environment next year even if the economy continues to grow. Unemployment stands at 8.3 percent and was unchanged last month despite the creation of more than 200,000 jobs for the third straight month.
The jobless rate would be higher if more people who have given up the search for a job returned to the workforce, however, and that could make it more difficult for the rate to fall over the next six months.
That could make energy a particularly important issue in the fall, and it could present some obstacles for Obama, given the White House’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I would’ve told them to think three times before what they ended up doing with Keystone,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Clinton. “It’s given the Republicans a plausible talking point and a hook to hang the critique” of the administration’s energy policy.
On energy, “about the only thing the White House can do is manage the optics of the problem right now,” he said.
On Afghanistan, Galston said the administration should conduct a review of its policy with a sense of “feverish urgency.”