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Dick Morris: Ukraine hits Obama image

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Amid all the controversy that surrounds the Obama presidency, nothing has really changed Barack Obama’s personal image among the American people. His credibility has suffered, as his claims about ObamaCare have been proven false, and certainly his competency is more subject to question. But while voters disagree with much of what he proposes and has done, none of these issues have changed his core personal image in the way that the crisis in Ukraine is likely to.

Foreign policy affects a president’s approval ratings and image in a very different way than do domestic affairs. Where domestic policy is concerned, voters focus mainly on the substance of the matter under discussion. Do they approve of ObamaCare? Do they think the president is doing enough to help the economy? Is he doing a good job of balancing national security and privacy? But when attention turns to foreign policy, voters turn their focus to the president’s personality, character and abilities. A foreign crisis can change a president’s personal image faster and more permanently than any domestic issue could ever do.

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It was the Iran hostage crisis that convinced us that Jimmy Carter was too weak to be a good president. On the other hand, when Bush 41 stood up to Saddam Hussein over Kuwait, he banished forever the wimp label that had dogged him for more than a decade.

Bill Clinton had a reputation for weakness until he bombed the Bosnian Serbs. Nobody appreciated Richard Nixon’s worldview or capacity for strategic thinking until he went to China. John F. Kennedy’s performance during the Bay of Pigs marked him as too young and indecisive, but his image was rehabilitated during the Cuban missile crisis that followed.

Because foreign policy is the exclusive purview of the president, and because the influence of Congress is only tangential, events abroad give us a chance to understand our president in a way that domestic issues do not.

As we see Obama failing to rein in Russian leader Vladimir Putin and watch his impotent sanctions fall terribly short, we are coming to see the president as weak, unprepared, naive and indecisive — adjectives that were not part of his image before Ukraine.

There are three steps that the U.S. should take to face down Putin in Ukraine. These measures would send a shiver down the Russian’s spine and threaten to undermine his entire geo-economic power base.

First, we should proceed with the installation of anti-missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic that Obama canceled when he took office. For more than a decade, stopping these missiles has been the prime object of Russian diplomacy. If Putin’s irresponsible actions in Ukraine lead to the installation of these missiles, the military and other Russian power brokers are certain to question Putin’s leadership.

Second, Congress should immediately repeal the layers of bureaucratic approval required for the exportation of natural gas. While it is true that we want to preserve gas for our own consumers to hold down prices, we also must sell gas to Europe to weaken Russia’s domination of its energy supplies. Putin’s power over Europe stems from his power to turn off the gas, a power we can render moot by our own exports.

And third, the administration needs to move quickly to construct the more than 20 natural gas liquefaction plants now in the planning stage. Once we liquefy natural gas and can put it on a tanker and ship it anywhere, the Russian gas monopoly ceases to be a factor in global politics. 

Once Putin sees the coming end of Russia’s ability to turn off the gas, he will have to cope with huge damage to Russia’s natural gas-centric economy and to its political clout in Eastern Europe. Eighty percent of Russia’s exports are from its energy sector. Putin will read the handwriting on the wall from the American actions.

Only in this way can Obama act with decisive impact and resolution and bring Putin to the bargaining table. 

Morris, who served as adviser to former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former President Clinton, is the author of 16 books, including his latest, Screwed and Here Come the Black Helicopters. To get all of his and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by email, go to dickmorris.com.