Moreover, Republicans have a cornucopia of legitimate criticisms to fuel the attack. The public, though not in agreement about what should happen, clearly believes that Obama should have been doing more to manage the turmoil in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine„ Iran, Nigeria…the list goes on. With so much to be unhappy about, Republican contenders should have little trouble making the general case that it is time for a change.
As a bonus, the Huff Post/YouGov poll also found that Obama’s handling of foreign policy is tied with immigration for what upsets Republicans most about his presidency. Coupled with the Republican Congress’ ability to keep Clinton’s email and Benghazi role in the voters’ minds, this means foreign policy should be useful for motivating the Republican base in 2016 and generating donations even if it doesn’t woo any swing votes.
Why It Might Not Be So Easy…
Hillary Clinton, almost certain to be the Democratic nominee, is no Barack Obama when it comes to foreign policy. When she left her post as Secretary of State, Clintonenjoyed a 69% approval rating for her performance; just 25% disapproved. Republican frothing about Benghazi and private emails aside, most Americans remember her globetrotting days with admiration, not aggravation.
Second, Clinton is likely to enjoy 100% of the on‐the‐job executive experience in foreign policy compared to the current GOP frontrunners. Her experience will be especially useful during presidential debates, when her gravitas and experience will provide the greatest contrast with her opponent.
A final, potentially game changing factor is the Islamic State. The Islamic State situation already helps Republicans politically, but will play even better if the situation worsens and Americans become frustrated with setbacks, losses, or just plain lack of progress. Only 37% of Americans think Obama has a clear plan for dealing with the group and a recent CNN poll finds 58% disapprove of his handling of the campaign. If Obama sends in ground troops the likelihood of things going wrong will rise. Given the low probability of a quick and clear‐cut U.S. victory over Islamic State, Obama runs a real risk of handing the Republicans a huge foreign policy advantage if he sends in the troops.
In the end, the biggest danger for Republicans will likely come from self‐inflicted wounds. Criticizing Obama and Clinton on foreign affairs is a no brainer. But as the furor and backlash caused by the Senate Republicans’ letter to Iran has shown, it is possible to go too far. Media coverage, editorials, and expert commentary has been overwhelmingly negative for the GOP, and early polls show most people think the letter was inappropriate. Even several Congressional Republicans now acknowledgethat the letter was a bad move politically. In short, such actions undermine the ability of a Republican candidate to claim the mantle of serious steward of foreign policy from Democrats.
The letter snafu probably happened early enough that the eventual Republican nominee can avoid direct fallout, but the risk of going too far remains real. During the primaries the Republican contenders will inevitably compete to appear hawkish on foreign policy. If they become too enamored with muscular and assertive strategies for dealing with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Islamic State, however, Republicans risk losing swing votes from a public that remains war‐weary and reluctant to commit ground troops yet again to solve problems in the Middle East.