Will International Crisis Drive the Debate Away from Economy?

Even as Obama tries to re-set the agenda, international events drive the debate.

Nov. 25, 2010— -- As President Obama tries to shift the focus back to the economy and jobs after a blistering defeat in the mid-term elections, a spate of international events threaten to distract the country from his message.

It's not unusual for an administration to fall victim to unfolding events and crises. But at a time when anxiety among Americans is boiling over, unemployment continues to hover at record levels, and the economy remains the foremost concern, unforeseen events in Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere are hampering the White House's efforts to set its own agenda.

Concerns about war in Korea escalated after North Korea launched an artillery attack on South Korean territory Tuesday. North Korea also unveiled a more sophisticated nuclear plant last week, demonstrating to the world and the United States that it is not about to back down from its nuclear ambitions.

The United States also faced embarrassment in Afghanistan after reports emerged that Afghan and U.S. officials were engaged in talks with an imposter they assumed to be a key Taliban leader.

A new Department of Defense report this week painted a somber picture of the war in Afghanistan, and while there were gains in some areas, challenges continue to surpass the advances. Additionally, officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan are warning of another WikiLeaks document dump that might reveal more unpleasant facts about U.S. policies in the region.

Many an international crisis have, in the past, given presidents a political boost. John F. Kennedy's approval rating peaked in 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis, as did President Dwight Eisenhower's in Cold-War 1956.

But Obama hasn't had similar luck so far.

"The unfortunate thing for the president is a narrative of repeated failures abroad, and I think that doesn't help at home. And then, of course, Republicans are doing their best as well, if you look at the START treaty," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to GOP objections against ratification of the arms control treaty with Russia. "I think the foreign policy success for the president is being turned into a failure by the actions of his political adversaries."

"I think the bigger problem is not foreign policies distracting from domestic policies, but just that he is not able, on either the foreign or domestic front, to gain any momentum to have any string on successes to try and turn around the narrative on his presidency," Alden said.

The administration recently failed to reach a free trade agreement with South Korea ahead of Obama's visit there earlier this month. The deal, Obama said, would have boosted U.S. exports and added 70,000 jobs in the United States.

The North Korea situation may actually give him a break, say some strategists.

Will International Crisis Help or Hurt President Obama?

"He's been on his heels now since the election... and this gives him an opportunity to be the president of action, a commander-in-chief that's leading the country in time of crisis," said Matt Keelen, a Republican consultant.

While most agree that the president needs to re-set the agenda back to jobs, some say foreign policy is one arena that could pose some opportunities for bipartisanship.

Republicans have mostly opposed the president since he took office, but they praised his decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan late last year, as well as appoint Gen. David Petraeus to lead troops on the ground.

"What I am most struck by these last two years is the ability and willingness of President Obama, as well as Congressional Republicans (and even would-be presidential candidates to an extent), to separate foreign and domestic policy, largely agreeing on the former while fighting vigorously over the latter," said Michael O'Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow at Brookings. "I expect that will continue."

With North Korea and South Korea on high alert, Obama has the opportunity to show leadership on the international front. But his main focus should be to turn the dialogue toward the economy and project an optimistic outlook, as he did in Kokomo, Indiana Tuesday, experts say.

The White House is trying. The president's Thanksgiving message focused on the economy, with Obama calling on Republicans and Democrats to work together and "and start talking with one another."

"I think that his principle concern is domestic issues. That's what's going to get him elected or not elected in 2012," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. "He has to tend to the rest of the world but there really isn't anything as important on the horizon in foreign policy or international relations as it is getting the unemployment rate down, and he knows that."