At a fundraiser in Martha's Vineyard Monday, President Obama had a tricky set of arguments to make.
First, he described America's intervention in Iraq this month as part of its role as the world's policeman, "the one indispensable nation." Then he pivoted back to his campaign speech, touting the stronger economy and criticizing congressional Republicans.
Justifying his re-entry in Iraq is possibly the last thing Obama thought he’d be talking about to Democratic supporters during an August fundraiser before a critical midterm election with control of the Senate at stake.
At least so far, though, it is likely to have only an indirect effect on the elections.
Some of Obama’s biggest Democratic supporters, such as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have bristled at his decision to re-engage and launch airstrikes after saying for years that it was up to the Iraqis to solve their own problems.
They have made it clear that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq would provoke an even harsher Democratic backlash.
Luckily for Obama and Democrats, foreign policy traditionally doesn’t have much of an impact on congressional midterms, though headlines filled with the turmoil in Iraq make it difficult for Obama and the Democrats to talk domestic policy, boast of recent economic improvements and get their message out.
“I certainly don’t think foreign policy or national security is going to be as important an issue as it was in the 2006, 2004 or 2002 elections – the economy is always the top concern, but in those elections it was a factor,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker.
Candidates will have to brush up on their foreign-policy talking points so the issue doesn’t trip them up in debates and on the stump, Thornell said, but the Republican party has made it easier on Democratic candidates by splintering on its approach to policy and failing to offer a unified voice on intervention around the world.
“Neither party has a clear advantage on the issue – Republicans have a lot of baggage when it comes to foreign policy and national security – especially in Iraq,” he added.
Other Democratic political operatives aren’t so calm about Iraq.
Pollsters are particularly concerned about Obama’s rock-bottom poll numbers. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released before the Iraq airstrikes began, had his approval rating at just 40 percent, the same place where it was at the end of last year after Obamacare’s botched roll-out, and his foreign policy marks were stunningly lower.
When it comes to dealing with Russia and Ukraine, the survey found 23 percent approved. The civil war in Syria and the Israel and Hamas conflict? Just 17 and 18 percent back his actions, respectively. Just 14 percent back his handling of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
“Mostly the effect is indirect, which is to say, are these foreign-policy events affecting the president’s approval ratings? Yes. And is that having a drag on Senate and House candidates? Inevitably,” said one Democratic pollster.
None of the Senate or House races are going to turn on the intricacies of foreign policy or Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq. But some strategists are still worried about the unpredictable impact Iraq could have the impact of suppressing Democratic enthusiasm and turnout at the polls in November.
“Unless it involves committing U.S. troops – I think the impact is relatively minor,” the pollster predicted. “It’s at the margins but we don’t really know” how it could impact Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts in November if the U.S. military action in Iraq lasts that long.
Democrats traditionally have lower turn-outs during midterm elections, a trend Obama urged the crowd Monday night to help him buck.
“Democrats, one of the flaws we’ve got is we are congenitally disposed towards not turning out during midterm elections,” he said. “… I would just ask all of you to feel the same sense of urgency about the midterm election as you would in a presidential election.”