If Everyone Is Looking at the Economy, Watch Foreign Policy

November 30, 2009 · 8:00 AM EST

It was more than 10 months ago (Jan. 6, It May Not Be the Economy, Stupid, in the End) that I wrote in this space that, despite the nation’s focus on the economy and multiple assessments that Barack Obama’s presidency would depend on his actions on the economy during the first 100 days, the president’s ultimate standing might turn on international issues.

I continue to believe that is the case.

Given the primacy of domestic issues to the public, particularly the undeniable importance of unemployment, health care and spending issues, that may seem an unwise guess. But if there are any issues that can rival, or in fact trump, kitchen-table concerns, one of them surely is national security.

While his Afghanistan policy has generated some controversy, foreign policy remains Obama’s strength.

The public’s evaluation of his overall job performance has slipped since the early days of his presidency, when his job approval was artificially high, but his approval still stands generally in the low 50s, certainly a decent number considering the administration’s level of activity and the problems still facing the country.

While his job approval on domestic issues such as health care and the federal budget deficit has slipped noticeably — with more adults saying they disapprove of the president’s performance in those two areas than those who approve — Obama’s numbers on international issues and fighting terrorism have remained stronger. For example, 6 in 10 Americans said they approve of his handling of international issues.

But foreign policy remains fraught with danger for the White House.

While the president has more latitude to create policy in the international arena, he is dealing with an array of state and nonstate actors who don’t necessarily have America’s interests at heart. For a White House that enjoys being proactive and staying on message, foreign policy can be frustratingly reactive.

Figuring out how Blue Dogs and liberals can sign onto the same health care or climate change bills is difficult, but it’s easier than having to worry about whether Russia and China are serious about ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, how close the government of Iran is to acquiring nuclear weapons or deciding whether to put more troops into Afghanistan.

For all the problems that Obama has on Capitol Hill with moderate Democrats who are trying to demonstrate their independence from the administration and from Republicans who have a very different vision of health care reform and economic policy — and who score political points by discrediting the president’s agenda and defeating his efforts — at least those domestic players (and adversaries) have America’s best interests at heart.

True, some partisan crackpots treat Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) or South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) as traitors because they don’t always agree with their party’s leaders, but there should be little doubt about their allegiance.

But nobody in their right mind thinks that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make decisions on the basis of what the United States wants or needs.

Since foreign policy remains one of Obama’s assets to date, he could create dramatic problems for himself when forced to make difficult decisions involving U.S. foreign policy.

Afghanistan is the most obvious problem, and a perfectly reasonable decision in late November could look like a horrible one six months later.

Even before his decision about how to respond to calls for additional troops, Obama’s disapproval on his handling of the war in Afghanistan (48 percent) is higher than his approval (45 percent). Those are worrisome numbers given that his decision on future troop levels could well anger those on the right and the left.

But beyond Afghanistan, Iran looks to become a nightmare for Obama unless his current strategy of encouraging Iran to give up his nuclear program bears fruit. And for many Americans, only the most naive of presidents would truly believe that international pressure on Iran would succeed in persuading the current government to “walk through the door” that the president has said the international community has opened.

Like everything else, foreign policy is about the results, and it is easy to see the president looking too weak to moderates and conservatives, as well as to pro-Israel liberals, if he fails to act decisively on Iran, and looking too hawkish to anti-war liberals if he supports military measures aimed at damaging Iran’s nuclear capability.

Right now, Obama represents restraint and multilateralism in foreign policy. But as George W. Bush found out, sometimes strengths turn into weakness during the four years of a presidency.