TOPICS > Politics

Which is worse? The Decider or Mr. Cautious

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Simone Pathe and Rachel Wellford  April 29, 2014 at 8:59 AM EST
President Obama defended U.S. foreign policy at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines Monday. Photo by Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images

President Obama defended U.S. foreign policy at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines Monday. Photo by Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images

The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Obama wanted to be transformational, and is now a singles hitter?
  • Is decisiveness the best policy?
  • Post/ABC poll offers warning signs to Democrats
  • Rough day for House GOP

Obama defends foreign policy: We’ve noted in this space the criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which has been marked by caution. On Monday in Manila, the president offered a full-throated defense of his record. “If you look at the results of what we’ve done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger,” he said, adding, “And that may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” It’s an acknowledgement of the criticism and the frustration some have derided as “leading from behind.” And it’s striking to hear the president talk about singles and doubles when he once aspired to being a “transformational figure.” He was so aspirational, for example, he said in Cairo in 2009: “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” High-minded in the abstract, but difficult to pull off in reality.

Decision vs. Caution: But here’s a question to ponder: Is a doctrine of caution always bad and is a doctrine of decisiveness too often more easily rewarded in D.C.? Consider: Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 was in large measure because he was the anti-George W. Bush, who some accused of pursuing a war of choice in Iraq. He hinted at that yesterday, saying, “The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again. Why? I don’t know. But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it.” Mr. Obama promised to get the U.S. out of Iraq and focus more strongly on anti-terror operations centered in Afghanistan, while trying to build a multilateral approach. He followed through — the U.S. is all but out of Iraq, and he got bin Laden. It also matters that in a war-weary country, the U.S. has so far this year seen the fewest deaths combined in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

Obama’s false choice? Critics, however, would argue that President Obama is setting up a false choice, because no one is calling for U.S. troops in Ukraine. And that he is too knee-jerk against bold U.S. foreign policy because of Iraq. More broadly, they say, under Mr. Obama, the U.S. is in lower standing (which is difficult to quantify). They point to Iraq being a mess (with bombings continuing and extortionist terrorists in Mosul funding operations in Syria and Afghanistan not exactly being a beacon of modernization. Plus, Putin has tested Obama on Ukraine. Syria is mired in a civil war with some nine million people having fled their homes there. Russia and China (and the U.S. Congress) all but thwarted potential action in Syria, making Obama look weak after not acting when his “red line” was crossed. Then there’s the Arab Spring, Benghazi and (another) failed Mideast peace process. (The book is still out on Iran.) Above all, many critics say, as summed up by Andrew Kutchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies to the Washington Post, Obama has “often been late” and “surprised more often than he should.” Others ask, though, why the U.S. should lead on Ukraine or be ahead of the Europeans even on sanctions when Ukraine is more of a European business interest. The Washington Post editorial page, which was in favor of the Iraq war, also takes a whack at Obama: “By choosing not to use the economic weapons at his disposal and broadcasting that restraint to the world, Mr. Obama is telling Mr. Putin as well as other potential aggressors that they continue to have little to fear from the United States.” It all makes you want to be president, doesn’t it? Mr. Obama arrives back at the White House from his Asia trip at 6:00 p.m. ET.

New poll holds warning signs for Democrats: The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday offers fresh warnings to Democrats heading into November’s midterm elections. The survey finds that President Obama’s approval rating dropped from 46 percent last month to 41 percent now. Per Gallup, when a president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, his party has lost an average of 36 House seats in the midterm elections. That’s compared with an average loss of 14 seats when the approval mark is above 50 percent. Another point of concern for Democrats in the Post/ABC poll: the health care law remains under water. Last month, 49 percent said they supported the program and 48 percent said they opposed it. Democrats were hoping that was part of a trend, building on the 8 million enrollment figure. But support for the Affordable Care Act now sits at 44 percent in April, while opposition held steady at 48 percent. When respondents were asked whether it was more important to have Democrats in control of Congress to back the president’s policies or Republicans to act as a check on them, 53 percent said they would prefer for Republicans to be in charge, and 39 percent picked the Democrats. Among registered voters, 45 percent said if the election were held today they would vote for the Democratic candidate, while 44 percent said the Republican. Democrats usually need a stronger advantage on that question to make gains, especially given the Republican-leaning shape of congressional districts. We’ll get more numbers Wednesday, when the NBC/WSJ poll is released.

Grim(m) day for House Republicans: Monday was a rough day for the House GOP conference. Louisiana Rep. Vance McAllister, having been caught on camera kissing a staffer, announced he would not seek re-election. And the GOP breathed a sigh of relief. Facing much more boring, yet serious, charges of tax evasion and fraud, New York Rep. Michael Grimm pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday to 20 counts. And although he stepped down from the House Financial Services Committee Monday evening, he’s not resigning from Congress and the party is standing by him in the competitive 11th district in Staten Island. Grimm’s and McAllister’s treatment reflect the different GOP response to ethical slips, depending on the kind of slip. The New York Times: “If House members are caught up in sexual peccadilloes or other made-for-television acts, they have been driven from Capitol Hill posthaste. If the allegations are more complicated, they have largely been given a pass.”

Quote of the day: “A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” — Secretary of State John Kerry in a closed-door meeting with world leaders Friday. Kerry later backpedaled: “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution.”

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1969, President Richard Nixon presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington. Who established the award and who established its precursor?
Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer @NewsHour, @rachelwellford, @DomenicoPBS, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. No one guessed Yesterday’s trivia correctly. The answer was: Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

LINE ITEMS

  • The White House released its recommendations for cracking down on sexual assaults at universities Monday. Vice President Joe Biden will host an event at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday to announce what measures will now be taken based on the recommendations.

  • More than 200 evangelical pastors from across the country will gather on Capitol Hill Tuesday to promote immigration reform. The trip will include personal visits to representatives’ offices.

  • Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is not shying away from her Washington experience, highlighting her role as chair of the Senate Energy Committee in her latest campaign spot.

  • The Upshot’s Nate Cohn examines Sen. Kay Hagan’s turnout problems in this year’s North Carolina Senate race.

  • Stu Rothenberg analyzes the chances of three women running for Senate seats this cycle.

  • The League of Conservation Voters is out with a new ad as part of a $1 million ad buy, tying Rep. Cory Gardner to the Koch brothers and employing the familiar refrain that he’s “just too extreme” for Colorado.

  • Federal officials are looking into threats against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, following his strong criticism of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

  • Elizabeth Warren will headline the Netroots Nation conference this summer. Hillary Clinton turned down an invitation to speak, the Washington Post reports. Who wants to bet she attends Netroots 2015?

  • The AP’s Thomas Beaumont looks at the split among 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls when it comes to education policy.

  • Arkansas Sen. John Boozman’s doctors say that the Republican senator will make a full recovery. He underwent emergency heart surgery last week.

  • The Pew Research Center is out with a new study showing why Americans believe there is a growing inequality gap, based on their political affiliation.

  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday to decide whether it is lawful for police to perform a warrantless search of a cell phone at the time of an arrest.

  • Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has a new job: visiting professor at Liberty University.

  • House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is objecting to a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow young undocumented immigrants to serve in the U.S. military.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

TOP TWEETS

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

Sign up here to receive the Morning Line in your inbox every morning.

Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: