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Election waves overseas could cause ripples in US presidential race

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March 7, 2012: President-elect Francois Hollande waves from the balcony of the Socialist Party headquarters in Paris. (AP)

A card-carrying Socialist back in power in France. 

Vladimir Putin seizing the reins in Russia. 

A sudden and symbolic dispute over human rights between the U.S. and China. 

And political tension in Israel stirring speculation about Israel's plans for Iran. 

These scattered developments are occurring thousands of miles away from Washington -- but they could have a big impact not just on policy in the United States but the presidential campaign itself. 

The economy may be king on the American campaign trail, but as President Obama sets out on his re-election bid and Mitt Romney tries to unseat him with a free-market-centered message, foreign policy is clearly creeping back into the mix. 

On the surface, that bodes well for Obama. "The president always has an advantage on national security issues, because he's been president for four years," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist and former campaign adviser to former GOP nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential race. 

But the trouble abroad could stir trouble at home for Obama, just as he's trying to convince voters his first term in office has put America back on track. 

Here's how the overseas upheaval could hit home:

France and Greece Elections -- Anti-Austerity Weekend 

The message emblazoned across newspapers Monday morning was that European voters had rejected what's known as "austerity" -- the severe spending cuts and belt-tightening reforms meant to address the European currency and debt crises. 

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande beat right-leaning President Nicolas Sarkozy on promises to rein in the spending cuts and impose big taxes on the wealthy and corporations. In Greece, voters also handed defeats Sunday to the parties that agreed to the country's tough bailout agreements. 

So what does that mean for America? 

A lot, if the left turn means these countries -- and perhaps others -- are unwilling to do what it takes to balance their finances. That could rattle the global markets, reverberate across the Atlantic and hit home for the U.S. economy. 

"If we see the markets start to get jittery, that's bad news for the U.S.," Holtz-Eakin said. 

Holtz-Eakin said Obama administration officials have probably spent more time dealing with the European debt problem than America's, because they see that as the quickest route to U.S. recovery. By that logic, Europe still has the ability to unravel America's recovery. 

Holtz-Eakin warned that the markets could "freak out completely" if Europeans ramp up spending again -- and even though Obama would have little to do with that decision, he'd still find himself on defense on the campaign trail. 

As to whether Obama might be more or less inclined to pursue a tax-and-spend agenda at home, it's unclear. But Capitol Hill's resident socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., put out a statement Monday saying European voters sent a message that "the wealthy and large corporations are going to have to experience some austerity" -- he said he believes that message "will be echoed here in the United States."  

France Election Fallout, Part Deux

Hollande's election in France also has implications for national security. France, under Sarkozy, returned as a vital partner for the U.S., both in Afghanistan and most recently in the Libya intervention a year ago. 

Hollande, though, has promised to pull out his nation's troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. And it's hard to imagine a Hollande administration leading the charge on an anti-Qaddafi-style mission abroad, as Sarkozy did last year. 

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while Hollande was elected on his domestic economic platform, his national security views are "a problem for Obama" as the U.S. president tries to very publicly wind down the Afghanistan war. 

France being a major partner in that effort, "you can't count (Hollande's withdrawal pledge) as a positive for the president," Pletka said.   

She said that while Sarkozy had France "punch above its weight" on the international scene, "Hollande seems pretty determined for them to punch below their weight or preferably not punch at all." 

Obama will confront Hollande's foreign policy views within days. Hollande is set to attend a G-8 summit in mid-May followed by a NATO summit in Chicago later in the month. 

Obama has already called Hollande to congratulate him. Asked Monday about the U.S.-France relationship, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the two leaders "reaffirmed" that "important enduring alliance" during their conversation. 

"That alliance is ... as strong today as it was last week," Carney said. 

The Return of Putin (not that he ever really left)

Some Democrats have mocked Romney for calling Russia the "number one geopolitical foe" of America. 

But Vladmir Putin's return Monday to the Russian presidency, after waiting out the last four years as prime minister and then waging a presidential campaign stippled with anti-American rhetoric, could give Romney a bit more fodder on the campaign trail. 

While the Obama administration tried to hit the "reset" with Russia under Dmitry Medvedev, Putin may be less conducive.   

"I don't think any of that anti-Americanism was campaign rhetoric," Pletka said of Putin. "I think we're in for a bumpy ride with Russia." 

The swearing-in comes just days after Russia's top military official threatened a pre-emptive strike on the U.S.-NATO missile defense project in Eastern Europe. 

Pletka suggested Obama is in danger of looking weak in an election year, if he doesn't hang tough against a recalcitrant Russia.

Israel's Election Calendar

It was a seemingly innocuous move. The Israeli government announced Monday that it wants to move up elections to this September. 

But the decision prompted widespread speculation about what exactly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would be expected to win another term, is planning -- particularly when it comes to Iran. 

Is he looking to build his Likud Party's hold on power, only to leverage that to move ahead with a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear program? Or is he turning down the heat, allowing campaign season to get under way and the bomb-Iran rhetoric to fade? 

The drama took another turn early Tuesday with reports that Netanyahu had an agreement to form a unity government, making the early election unnecessary.

Regardless, the Obama administration is constantly under pressure from both sides to either pay more heed or less heed to Netanyahu's wishes. 

In this case, what's happening in Europe could have a direct impact on the Middle East drama. Pletka questioned whether France would join others in standing up to Iran, with Hollande's foreign policies more or less "cloaked in mystery." 

"Where will France be on Iran? None of it is sure," she said.