| Stephen Collinson |
TAMPA (AFP) – With voters souring on his statesmanship as never before, President Barack Obama has a sudden chance to use two sudden world crises to recast his final two years in office.
Obama is making a show of assuming command of the confrontation with the Islamic State group and the right against Ebola, both of which will shape final judgments of his White House years.
Both dramas highlight the vision Obama has set for his foreign policy – that the United States should lead global coalitions to tackle threats head on.
And with critics assailing his “collapsing” foreign policy, the widening showdown with the IS group has become an unexpected test for Obama’s military doctrine that the United States can crush terror groups without getting sucked into power-sapping land wars in the Middle East.
Waging war and battling pestilence was not where Obama expected to be in September 2014.
Weeks before congressional elections in which his Democrats face heavy losses – Obama had blocked time in his diary to pound out a message that the economic recovery, however uneven, is at risk from Republicans who scent a Senate takeover.
But once again, terror threats stalk the headlines amid fears the IS group will turn its Western-passport-holding extremists on the US homeland.
One close Obama aide reflected on the changed environment this week, noting that a few months ago, many Americans had not even heard of the IS group.
And even a few weeks ago, no one in the White House expected Obama would have to give the kind of call-to-arms address he delivered on September 10, heralding a new American adventure in the Middle East.
But the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the truth that all White House teams learn – that the presidency always busts best-laid political plans.
Obama used a two-day trip to Georgia and Florida which wrapped up Wednesday to open a new dialogue with an American public skeptical of new commitments overseas.
His message on both Ebola and the IS group was similar – that US leadership abroad can stop each crisis from becoming a problem at home.
“Our intelligence community … has not yet detected specific plots from these terrorists against America,” Obama told US troops at US Central Command.
After meeting top medical authorities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Tuesday, Obama said “the chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low.”
The Ebola and IS challenges struck at a vulnerable time for Obama.
A New York Times poll Tuesday found his approval rating at 40 per cent and his rating on foreign policy at just 34 per cent. Only 41 per cent of Americans had confidence on his leadership on combating terrorism – once a strong point.
This is also a delicate political moment, with mid-term polls looming on November 4.
Democratic candidates already struggling to overcome their president’s plunging popularity hardly welcome the prospect of a new Middle East war or signs his war plan is not up to the task.
But could a strong showing by Obama revive confidence in his leadership – and edge his approval ratings up a notch to give some vulnerable candidates a bit of cover?
The senior official dismissed the idea that the president would leverage the international situation to his advantage before election day.
That may be a tactical decision as much as a statesmanlike one because in a rare show of unity Republican leaders in the House and the Senate are falling in behind Obama’s strategy on the IS group.
Politicising the war could splinter that support.
The White House is also looking beyond the mid-terms, as unpleasant as they are likely to be.
The conflict with IS puts one of the fundamental principles of the Obama presidency on the line – that of limited but lethal war to smash terror groups.
A second senior US official said that the White House viewed the IS campaign very much as a counter-terrorism campaign – not as a full blown war, and made a direct distinction between Obama’s efforts, using air power and local partners and former president George W. Bush mass land invasion of Iraq.
The Ebola epidemic has been a slow-boiling crisis for Obama – but one which the White House says he has been preparing to confront for three months.
“Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, the United States, and it’s a responsibility that we embrace,” Obama said in Atlanta.
“We’re prepared to take leadership on this,” he said as he ordered 3,000 US troops to West Africa to help support local doctors tackling Ebola.
The Ebola fight could also impact Obama’s legacy in a significant way.
His foreign policy team has often chafed at the idea that the president, with his African ancestry has left less of an imprint on the continent than Bush, whose multi-billion dollar HIV/AIDS plan saved millions of lives.
If Obama goes down as the president who delivered the continent from another horrific disease, that could change.