I say it repeatedly: Events matter. And for President Barack Obama, the terror attacks in Paris present a no-win political situation, at least until other, compelling news changes the subject.
That is not to say the president, the Democratic Party or the likely Democratic 2016 nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will be fatally damaged by the attacks that killed at least 129 people. The extent of any political damage is yet to be determined and rests, in part, on unforeseen events that will occur in the weeks and months ahead.
But the political fallout for Democrats from the Paris tragedy is not likely to merely fade away, and there is virtually no upside potential for the party of the sitting president.
Obama almost certainly cannot “fix” the problem in a way that takes homeland security and terrorism off the table in the near term. Nor is there any easy way for the White House to put the attacks behind it and move seamlessly to discussing economic inequality, global climate change, abortion rights or the abuses of Wall Street, themes that energize progressives.
Democratic candidates and strategists will, of course, talk about those issues, as well as try to pivot by re-framing ISIS’s successes into a discussion about refugees and alleged Republican xenophobia. But the developments of Nov. 13 elevated terrorism and national security as salient concerns, reminding Americans that many of Obama’s foreign policy promises have not been fulfilled.
For the president, and his former secretary of state, that means explaining, justifying and backtracking. It means a never-ending deluge of questions and responding to an avalanche of criticism. It means, in short, being on defense. And playing defense is generally not where any politician, Republican or Democrat, incumbent or challenger, wants to be.
Unfortunately for the White House, the killing of bin Laden and the withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from Iraq, two of the administration’s foreign policy “successes,” are now ancient history — fossilized anecdotes that serve only to remind voters that those accomplishments didn’t really change things at all.
The president can continue to insist that it is the view of his “closest military and civilian advisers” that sending American ground troops to fight ISIS “would be a mistake,” but that does not eliminate the threat to America or erase the sense of vulnerability that the Paris attacks have engendered.
Obama also cannot erase his earlier comment about ISIS being “contained” or explain his cool, “petulant-sounding” demeanor in the days after the Paris slaughter.
His “containment” remark was aired repeatedly after the Paris attacks, and while PolitiFact concluded that the president was talking solely about the geographic spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the White House — and Hillary Rodham Clinton — cannot possibly want a discussion about what exactly the president said and what he meant.
Republicans have generally had the advantage since Obama took office as the party best able to handle foreign policy in general and terrorism in particular. That is not likely to change.
In a September 2014 Gallup survey, 55 percent of respondents said the GOP was better able to protect the country from terrorism, while only 32 percent picked the Democratic Party.
A July 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (see here, Page 25) found 36 percent of adults saying that the Republicans would do the better job dealing with foreign policy, compared to 28 percent who picked the Democrats.
The Democrats’ problem, of course, is not only that Republicans have traditionally been seen as stronger on defense, but that Obama has had more than his share of foreign policy controversies and setbacks — including drawing and erasing red lines in Syria, reversing course on withdrawing all troops in Afghanistan, and negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran that is opposed by majorities in both the House and Senate.
Nobody can predict the results of the 2016 elections, or even foresee the events that will color the national conversation between now and Election Day. But the memories of the Paris attacks will not fade quickly, and any future acts of terrorism at home or abroad by America’s enemies will further damage the administration’s standing and the prospects of next year’s Democratic presidential nominee.