March 2nd, 2014
03:09 PM ET
7 months ago

Panel: Obama's approach to Ukraine hurting public perception

(CNN) – President Barack Obama's handling of international conflicts with Russia has not helped his falling approval rating, as Americans wait to see how he will respond to Russia's military moves in the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, said Obama's stand-back approach to foreign policy during his tenure as president has been pretty popular in theory, but his recent woes in Ukraine and Syria demonstrate problems with his approach, which Douthat called "very confused and uncertain."

"When you draw lines, say you're going to use military force, back off – and then we're seeing this in Ukraine, where we're saying there are consequences and we're not sure what those consequences are and so on – it just becomes a problematic dynamic," Douthat said on CNN's “State of the Union.”

Some people, however, do not believe that Obama’s handling of Syria and Russia is the main reason for his plummeting numbers. Amy Walter, the national editor for The Cook Political Report, believes that feelings about domestic issues are being projected onto Obama's handling of international matters, specifically concerning Ukraine and Russia.

"Look, people are frustrated about the pace of the economy," Walter said on “State of the Union.” "They don't feel like things are getting better fast enough. They sure didn't like the rollout of Obamacare, and they don't like what they're seeing in Washington in terms of the constant back and forth and the fighting. That means that the President's numbers suffer across the board."

Walter added that the biggest problem the public has with Obama is that his administration "just seems unmoored and unfocused about the things that they care about."

Bill Burton, who served as the deputy White House press secretary from 2009 to 2011, also believes that the negative perception of Obama's foreign policy is driven by unhappiness about problems back home.

"The unfortunate news here is that as things with Obamacare are getting better – we're starting to hit some of the marks on targets, and the website's working well and people are getting insured – that now the news from the Ukraine is going to completely block that out and people aren't going to hear about it as much as they would," Burton said.

Foreign policy is not perceived the same way as domestic issues by the American public, according to Burton, and thus it would be unlikely for Obama to see an increase in his approval rating as a result of his what he does about the crisis in Ukraine.

"I think it's too soon to say how this is going to play out in the Ukraine, but I think in American politics, you don't get too much credit for having a nuanced strategy when it relates to foreign policy in, short of being in a war or handling some crisis in a very decisive way, like when we got the pirates and saved Capt. Phillips," Burton said.

Douthat agrees that foreign policy can be a thankless duty of the presidency, but he believes that Obama has failed to do what’s needed with regard to international conflicts, especially in his second term.

"The President has an obligation not to let crises get out of hand. I think you have to judge on results, and the President has had better results in his first term than either in the Syria controversy or now in Ukraine," Douthat said. "I think there's a reason for that, that the choices he's made have literally emboldened actors in that part of the world who think that the U.S. doesn't have a strategy - which frankly, it doesn't seem to have."

While Walter sees foreign policy as a challenge that the Republican Party will have to address in the 2016 election cycle, Douthat believes the crisis in Ukraine can unite the different factions of the GOP.

"Even John McCain, as far as I know, has not called to send 50,000 troops to police the Ukrainian-Russian border, so that means both the hawks and noninterventionists can agree that we need to take the strongest possible line against Putin - and maybe then focus on attacking the President," Douthat said.

Biden eyeing 2016 run

The panelists also discussed Vice President Joe Biden’s prospects for a presidential run in 2016.

Biden finds himself in an unusual position, as the vice president but not the apparent front-runner. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads in most polls, though neither she nor Biden has announced a decision to run in the next election cycle.

"Beyond Dick Cheney, who took himself out of the running, when was the last time you had a two-term sitting vice president not considered the front-runner for the nomination?" Walter said to CNN's Candy Crowley. "He should be right out front, but you're right, this is somebody who knows that he's not the first choice of the party."

Clinton was also seen by some to be the front-runner back in 2008 before falling to Obama, but Clinton's poll numbers are far better going into 2016 than they were going into 2008, according to Douthat. He added that the assumption is that if anyone is going to challenge Clinton, it would not be Biden, but some new face in the party.

"The reality is that the only way (Biden) would possibly beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary is if he personally climbs in a fighter jet in the next couple of hours, flies to the Crimea, punches several Russian soldiers in the face and then does it 15 more times between now and the election," Douthat joked.

Burton said Clinton is further ahead than any other front-runner in the history of Democratic politics. He said there is a lingering energy and animosity from the 2008 election from people who felt that Clinton was robbed of the Democratic nomination, which contributes to her position as the heavy favorite to win the nomination in 2016. But Burton added that Biden would make an "extraordinary president."

"He has a very impressive resume," Burton said. "The experience he would bring to the Oval Office would be unparalleled, really, with many modern presidents."

Long before anyone wins the Democratic nomination in 2016, the party faces a tough fight this year against the GOP in the midterm elections. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, if the midterm elections were held today, 42% of registered voters would vote Republican while only 39% would vote Democratic. When asked about their opinion on their own party, 85% of Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of their party while only 67% of Republicans found the GOP to be favorable.

"The bigger problem right now for Republicans is they can win this election, they can do very well in the midterms, but their overall approval rating is so low that they go into 2016 with an image that is so tarnished and so laden with negatives that it's going to take more than just one good election to get rid of that," Walter said.

Watch State of the Union with Candy Crowley Sundays at 9am ET. For the latest from State of the Union click here.

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Richard Long

    Obama is impotent in the eyes of the world.
    – Trillions in debt to China as they bully their neighbor and former allies
    – His Red Line in Syria called out and failed
    – European countries pissed about the blatant NSA spying

    March 2, 2014 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  2. Tony in Maine

    I assume this means the testosterone enhanced will be lining up outside recruiting offices, ready to put their lives on hold and bodies on the line. Oh wait, they have better things to do, like strut around with assault weapons and carry signs about the lazy in the White House.

    March 2, 2014 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    Do civilians really believe that we know what is going on behing closed doors? Do you think thevWhite house is going to broadcast the plan? For a Gods sake give Obama a break! This stuff just happened! There hasn't been time to be descive! Are these people thinking we just go in and start a war without getting the plan in place?!!!? I have faith in our president!

    March 2, 2014 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  4. physics1200

    Surprised that Putin stayed on the phone as long as he did.

    March 2, 2014 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  5. Ron L

    I think many Americans feel the way I feel about Syria and the Ukraine situation. We feel for the people that are being oppressed by their government but we are sick and tired of being the police for the rest of the world. We need to, no HAVE to turn our attention inward for the next 5 to 10 years to rebuild OUR HOUSE. It is mazing how quickly some of our politicians can say we don't have funds to help our own citizens, but increasing expenditures for conflicts in other nations is not a problem!! We spend close to $700 billion a year on national defense, to many Americans that is absurd when the our Congress is unable to pass a bill of earmarking 1 billion dollars for our crumbling infrastructure. The Iraq war combined with the Afghanistan war has cost this nation close to 4 trillion dollars and the most Americans view it as a valiant effort but a waste of lives, time, and money. You see the problem is in some regions of the world THE PEOPLE are not ready for Democracy as we know it. As soon as we get rid of a dictator, they turn on themselves. America needs to use diplomacy, offer help where it is practical, but other than that we need to back off. It has nothing to do with weakness, it has to do with there will always be conflicts in our world and we can't fix EVERYTHING.

    March 2, 2014 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  6. Blake

    This article is sort of a non story and doesn't make sense. First of all Obama's approval is down because of Obamacare and people are less trustful of him after the "keep your plan" revelation, I just looked at all the polls myself and all are 40-45% of average (I don't count Gallup because their polling has been waaaay off, being completely biased against Obama compared to reality in 08 through to 2012). These polls are consistent with a month ago when we were enjoying the Olympics. How does this translate into an article about how his numbers are down due to Ukraine? This sounds like an article trying to convince Americans that they will be upset if Obama doesn't go to war or is forceful with Russia over Ukraine. The opposite is what people want, but Obama's approval will go down if it looks like the West "lost" on Ukraine. Sanctions, suspension of Russia from G8 and making sure western Ukraine doesn't get railroaded into a new corrupt Russian backed government, will be enough to keep that from happening and will really hurt Russia in the long run.

    Crimea can either go to Russia or stay with Ukraine. For Ukrainian stability its probably best that it goes to Russia. I wish Russia luck with the Tatar population there that were persecuted and exiled by Russians and the 20-30% Ukrainians there as well, while making the rest of Europe as a hole distrust and hate your guts in the process when relations post Olympics were about to fully normalize I bet. lol.

    March 2, 2014 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  7. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    Well GOP, if you think the USA runs the world like the brain dead GOP CLOWNS think, SEND your OWN sons and daughters and the COWARDS in the GOP congress to be FIRST IN LINE. The GOP congress WONT be MISSED!!!!!!!!!

    March 2, 2014 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  8. EX-Republican

    @ Ron L, thank you very much for your comments.

    March 2, 2014 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  9. abcd1

    The horse is already in front of the cart .so what are you going to do ? nothing ,nothing .You would of left three days ago .not yesterday .

    March 2, 2014 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  10. Publius et Deus

    Obama's leadership on all fronts has been sickening, demoralizing, and depressing. For the world's mass murderers and dictators, it's been a laugh riot.

    March 2, 2014 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  11. Stuffitu

    South art has got it wrong, the perception is that Obama is an inept, incompetent, corrupt bungler and he has done nothing to des prove it

    March 2, 2014 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  12. SNOWDOG

    This administration has no credibility whatsoever after what happened in Syria. Obama drew the line in the sand, wait he did not. Like all democrats he is all talk and no do and Putin knows it. Obamas threats are laughable.

    March 2, 2014 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  13. don in albuquerque

    Well, Publius, I don't hear Bin Ladin, or a few Somali pirates laughing too hard. Could that be possibly because they are dead , do you think. And ordered by President Obama.

    March 2, 2014 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  14. OldGrunt83

    Obama and Kerry might just want to be quiet for a while. Putin is making them look like weak little fools. Who is kidding who?

    Obama has already his pattern of dealing with international problems:

    * Reneged on the Eastern European missile defense shield as part of HIS 'reset' with Russia!
    * Unilaterally reduced the nuclear capability of the USA
    * Established a pattern of Big Boy Talk, but using a baby boy ball with the following:

    - Egypt
    - Syria
    - Libya (remember Benghazi??)
    - north Korea
    - Iran
    - Iraq
    - Afghanistan
    * He has lost confidence with much of the EU as a result of the NSA spying debacle - so much so, the EU and Brazil are in the process of establishing their on trans Atlantic cable to by pass the USA.
    * And to cap it off, Obama had his useful idiot at the Pentagon announce to the world that we were going to cut our military to the lowest level since WWII!

    Now, what is Kerry going to do? Throw his remaining Vietnam medals at Putin? They are all looking very foolish to the world, and it is all of their own doings - especially the Nobel Peace Prize recipient. (Don't you know the Nobel Committee regrets that award???????)

    March 2, 2014 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  15. Gurgyl

    I notice lot of potholes on I-95, I-40, fix them first idiots. Then talk of Syria, Zimbabwe, Ukraine. GOP is nasty thugs. Vote all out.

    March 2, 2014 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  16. TEA Party Patriot

    This is why we need to kick these establishment Republican RINOs out of office. We have no money to spend on their wars! We are TAXED ENOUGH ALREADY!

    March 2, 2014 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  17. Expat American

    It doesn’t matter what action the President takes.
    Republicans don’t care about Ukraine. Republicans don’t care about Syria.
    Republicans care about talking points and are grateful for the opportunity to hide behind the suffering of innocent people to voice their cowardly ‘opposition’ of anything that the President does.

    'Smoking Putin out of his hole with Shock and Awe' is not going to work (a la Republican foreign policy)

    March 2, 2014 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  18. Mr. Balls

    Biden has an impressive record of just being around for decades.

    March 2, 2014 05:48 pm at 5:48 pm |
  19. Expat American

    Lots of posters puffing out their chest throwing around words like inept, incompetent, etc… This is pretty easy when you're hiding behind a computer with your trousers by your ankles drooling over a picture of Sarah Palin in her pageant bikini from 30 years ago.

    Maybe these posters feel that this crisis should already be solved in the 48 hours after it began; and their global perspective would trump any bipartisan foreign policy solution currently being discussed behind closed doors and hidden from the public in Washington? The best criticism is that President Obama is ‘all talk’. Bush and the Republicans refused to talk and thought blind aggression was the solution. The result was the world turned their backs on the US. That didn't work out as originally planned.

    March 2, 2014 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  20. GOP = Greed Over People

    I admit it was a poor show of force to draw a "line in the dirt" and then shrug when it was crossed, however, with the GOP ankle biters constantly yelping at his heels, all for political advantage, I can see where poor choices could be made just to shut up the GOP.

    Too bad the GOP sees political drama, where deep contemplative thought as a UNIT, is needed to present a united front.

    March 2, 2014 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  21. rla

    Leading from behind again??? No wonder he does not understand what consequences mean- Especially those consequences for fututre Americans because he has no clue as a community organizer should!

    March 2, 2014 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  22. Smitty

    Obammy will be as name jk puts the only coward in the line up, ooops I forgot Lurch !!! Bammy will do nothing.

    March 2, 2014 06:23 pm at 6:23 pm |
  23. Rick McDaniel

    Obama is too inept to handle the Ukrainian situation, and especially the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

    March 2, 2014 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  24. AJinFLA

    yeah... let me guess the GOP want to go to war, I mean send our kids to war again right? or is there only answer to sit back without a plan and criticize Obama?

    March 2, 2014 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  25. Marie MD

    It's playing just fine.We don't need to get into another war and the people of Ukraine seem to be receiving the Russians with open arms, just like dick said we would be welcomed in Iraq. Remember the shrub administration?
    There have been plenty of countries committing genocide during other administrations and the world has done nothing but the teaklans just have to being out their big guns to make up for their little members or in the case of ms Lindsey and if I had followed orders I wouldn't have become a pow McCain there incompetence.

    March 2, 2014 08:05 pm at 8:05 pm |
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