Barack Obama
Evan Vucci  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington on Friday.
updated 10/22/2011 1:02:41 PM ET 2011-10-22T17:02:41

By declaring the Iraq war over, President Barack Obama scored what his allies see as a fourth big foreign policy success in six months, starting with Osama bin Laden's killing.

But in his re-election bid, these events might play a discouragingly small role even if they burnish his eventual place in history.

Voters tend to focus heavily on domestic issues, especially in times of high unemployment. That will limit Obama's campaign options.

His supporters are seeking ways to make the most of his foreign policy accomplishments. One approach is to contrast them with Congress' partisan-driven gridlock on taxes, the deficit and other domestic issues.

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"Look at the progress the president can make when he doesn't have Republicans obstructing him," said Karen Finney, a former Democratic spokeswoman who often defends the party on TV and radio.

Video: Will the troop withdrawal affect the 2012 election? (on this page)

Democratic strategist Rebecca Kirszner Katz distributed a similar remark on Twitter this past week: "Terrorists and dictators, lacking the filibuster, have no effective defense against Barack Obama." It referred to the stalling tactic that Senate Republicans frequently use to kill Democratic bills even though they hold only 47 of the chamber's 100 seats.

These Democrats hope people will see a bold and capable president who keeps his promises when Republicans don't create roadblocks. They note that he approved the raid to kill bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1 and policies that led to last month's drone-missile killing of American-born al-Qaida figure Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen; backed allied actions that led to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ouster and death; and ended U.S. involvement in Iraq on schedule.

"It is very important for any incumbent to be able to talk about promises made and promises kept," Finney said. The list of achievements, contrasted with President George W. Bush's erroneous claims about Iraq's weaponry in the first place, should help Democrats shake their image of being the weaker party on national security, she said.

"That baggage is finally lifted," Finney said.

Obama keeps campaign promise with Iraq

Translating that claim into votes for Obama 13 months from now may be difficult, however. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll confirmed that Americans place far greater emphasis on domestic issues, especially the economy, than on foreign matters, including the fight against terrorism.

The poll found Obama's overall approval rating at a new low, 46 percent, for the second straight month, even though 64 percent of adults approved of his handling of terrorism. Only 40 percent approved of his handling of the economy.

Ninety-three percent of those questioned said the economy was an extremely or very important issue. By comparison, 73 percent put the same emphasis on terrorism.

Democratic officials believe Obama's foreign policy record will look even better when the Republican presidential candidates hold a debate on that topic Nov. 15. Leading contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are current or former governors, and businessman Herman Cain has never held public office. None has extensive foreign policy experience.

But voters routinely accept that. In recent presidential elections they have chosen governors from Georgia, California, Arkansas and Texas, plus a first-term senator, Obama.

On Friday, Romney and Perry criticized Obama's handling of Iraq. Some Democrats found Romney's remarks exceptionally harsh.

Republicans criticize Obama over Iraq withdrawal

"President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women," Romney said. "The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government."

Obama's defenders fired back. "Is there anything more hollow than Mitt Romney decrying 'political considerations' in decision-making?" said former White House spokesman Bill Burton.

Perry said in a statement: "I'm deeply concerned that President Obama is putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment by announcing an end to troop level negotiations and a withdrawal from Iraq by year's end." He said Obama "was slow to engage the Iraqis and there's little evidence today's decision is based on advice from military commanders."

Video: Obama shifts conversation back to jobs (on this page)

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was more generous. "American forces not only freed Iraq from a vicious tyrant, but — under the strategy developed and implemented by our generals, and the leadership of both President Bush and President Obama — ended a violent terrorist insurgency," he said.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama "kept his pledge to the nation to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, he has promoted our security in Afghanistan, and eliminated key al-Qaida leaders." He said Romney "didn't lay out a plan to end the war in Iraq."

Republican strategist Rich Galen said the economy clearly will dominate the 2012 election, and it might undo Obama. As for Obama's foreign record, however, Galen said, "they're doing exactly the right thing" by highlighting every success they can.

Galen said Obama clearly deserves credit for the raid on bin Laden's compound.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama shifts conversation back to jobs

  1. Transcript of: Obama shifts conversation back to jobs

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: For his part, President Obama quickly shifted the conversation today to what

    he called the greatest challenge: rebuilding the economy and creating jobs here at home. And the Republicans weighed in, as well, today on the president's policies, both foreign and domestic. NBC 's Kristen Welker is at the White House for us tonight. Kristen , good evening.

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Good evening, Lester . Well, President Obama has been flanked by a struggling economy. Now many are saying that the fall of Gadhafi and the end of US military involvement in Iraq are political victories. President Obama hailed this week's foreign policy developments in his weekly Web address .

    President BARACK OBAMA: This week we have two powerful reminders of how we've renewed American leadership in the world.

    WELKER: But the Republican candidates are not letting him take a victory lap. In New Hampshire today, Mitt Romney blasted the administration's decision to withdraw all troops instead of leaving a few thousand in country to aid the transition process.

    Former Governor MITT ROMNEY: And they either failed to do it by virtue of ineptitude or they decided that it wasn't that important politically or otherwise.

    WELKER: Political analysts say it's criticism that won't hold much weight.

    Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (Political Analyst): While the foreign policy success will be welcomed and is welcomed by most Americans, the Republicans are going to focus on the one issue that people are really interested in, and that's the domestic economy.

    WELKER: The president also acknowledged it's his biggest challenge.

    Pres. OBAMA: Now the nation we need to build is our own.

    WELKER: GOP candidates were out in full force in Iowa today, trying to convince voters they can do a better job. Michele Bachmann is trying to revive her candidacy after five New Hampshire staffers reportedly quit. In a radio interview, Bachmann shot down the report.

    Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: There's no truth to that story, so this is a rumor.

    WELKER: And with his poll numbers dropping, Rick Perry is also in reset mode. On a hunting trip, he took aim at top rival Mitt Romney .

    Governor RICK PERRY: For Governor Romney to be making strong statements about immigration when it's been his actions that have caused part of this problem.

    WELKER: With the caucuses just 11 weeks away, analysts say the unsettled GOP field could soon become a lot clearer.

    Mr. ROTHENBERG: For the past six months, the Republican voters have been looking at these candidates, who do they like, who excites them, who energizes them. Now they're going to decide, 'Who do -- whom am I -- who do I -- who do I really want to marry? Who I do want to go to a presidential race with?'

    WELKER: Next week, President Obama turns back to his domestic agenda. He'll head to the West Coast to sell his jobs plan. He'll also attend several fundraisers. Analysts say he is also in campaign mode. Lester :

    HOLT: Kristen , thank you.


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