Bad News From Middle East Looks Worse for Obama Amid High Gas Prices

Bad News From Middle East Looks Worse for Obama Amid High Gas Prices

“We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change, and yet we're clearly an alien presence.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on “Face the Nation”

The most immediate worry for President Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll is his slide on economic measures, but his decay on foreign policy may be the greater long-term concern for his re-election.

The president took a 4-point dive in job approval, driven seemingly by economic frustrations, particularly the high price of gasoline. Only 26 percent of respondents approved of the president’s approach to gas prices. That helped drive his number for handling of the economy down 6 points to 38 percent and his overall job approval number back into negative territory after cresting the 50 percent mark last month for the first time in 11 months.

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Obama’s job approval rating among white Americans without college degrees clocked in at 28 percent. The former core Democratic constituency is spending an extra $8 to fill up their minivans and SUVs as compared to a year ago, and $41 more per tank than when Obama took office.

The administration and Obama campaign put the hard sell behind the president’s payroll tax stimulus asking the Internet to tell Republicans how Americans would suffer without $40 – the estimated value of the rate reduction for a two-income family at the high end of the earning curve. The correct answer, it seems, was “continue to drive to work.”

This helps explain why Obama went from being up 9 points on Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney among registered voters a month ago to trailing Romney by 1 point in the latest installment.

And mind you, this poll is one of the kinder ones for Obama. It covers adult Americans, not likely, or even registered, voters. This is why the president has kept up a steady swing-state campaign schedule to continue to talk about gasoline. He and his campaign have identified this as one of the main threats to five more years in office.

There is some surprise today among the commentariat that Obama is doing worse all of a sudden, so a word about the economic insights of the political press: People who mostly don’t understand money and who live inside recession-proof bubbles in Manhattan and Washington have become unemployment-rate junkies.

That monthly figure can be useful (big gains or big losses) for charting trends, but in a mostly stagnant economy is a poor reflection of the economic experience of voters. Good measures for these times include per-capita income and inflation, both of which remain unhappy. Economists can use jobless numbers to help forecast the pace of recovery and recession, but for a political yardstick, it’s of little use in real time.

The irony for an incumbent Democrat under such circumstances is that favorable reporting can produce an unfavorable result. When reporters see “good” unemployment numbers, the establishment press starts blowing great gusts about the recovery, etc. This creates an expectation among normal people that their lots are improving. But if you haven’t had a raise in three years, have no prospect for getting a better job and everything you burn, eat and wear costs more, you will quickly conclude, again, that a lot of what you see, hear and read about the economy is a bunch of hogwash.

Talking up the economy can be self-fulfilling, but it can also lead to disappointment.

Knowing this, Obama has remained narrowly focused on the cost of gasoline on the campaign trail for weeks. For the middle-class suburbanites who are the key to his re-election, stagnant wages and high prices are acting as a vise on their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness.

The president, though, is attempting an audacious effort. Rather than simply promising to make things better as soon as possible, he is promising to eventually improve things by reducing not the price of gas, but the amount of gas they are using. This dovetails with Obama’s argument that the time has come for rich people (cough, cough, Mitt Romney, cough, cough) to give the government more money with which to improve circumstances of “hard-working Americans.”

More importantly, though, Obama is working to re-educate voters about the role of the presidency vis-à-vis energy costs. We’ve heard Obama talk about silver bullets more than a football game’s worth of Coors Light commercials.

Every president since Herbert Hoover has no doubt wished to explain to voters that there’s little to be done in the short-term about energy prices, but only Obama has decided to make this lecture part of his campaign pitch. Republicans are teaching him the folly of such an effort by hammering him with his refusal of the Keystone Pipeline, the reduction of energy production from federal lands and aggressive new regulations from the EPA.

Voters, though, are not so simple-minded as many politicians and pressies imagine (Thank God, for there would not be enough sentient people to pave the roads or assemble clock radios).

Washington is blame-mongering on energy prices: Obama says that Republicans won’t let him take money from the Romneys of the world to fix the problem and Republicans say Obama is trying to drive up gasoline costs to force you to buy a stimulus-built electric car from Fisker (roadside assistance included).

But when gas is high, voters look immediately to the Middle East, where, for three generations of drivers, foreign people have been screwing up Americans’ summer vacation plans by starting wars, imposing oil embargoes, etc.

And there, real trouble lies ahead for Obama who owes his presidency to American dissatisfaction with domestic policy in the Middle East. When Obama unhorsed Hillary Clinton and beat John McCain, his opposition to “dumb wars” was at the heart of it. Not only had Americans watched Iraq slide into chaos and mourned the deaths of thousands of their countrymen fighting there, but they had been paying more, not less, for gasoline, the only thing anyone is much interested in getting from the region.

Accordingly, foreign policy has remained a relative bright spot for Obama throughout his term. Americans have generally approved of any plan that has fewer troops fighting overseas and kills Usama bin Laden.

But the president’s nation-building surge in Afghanistan is turning into a policy disaster. The Pentagon and the White House say that no matter what fresh hell we hear of from Central Asia, the mission of empowering and equipping the weak central government in Kabul is continuing apace.

Meanwhile, the stakes continue to rise dramatically as regional power Iran next door looks to obtain nuclear weapons and American interests are threatened across the region by the rise of Islamists in formerly friendly nations.

Obama went for a Goldilocks strategy in Afghanistan. He sent more troops, but not as many as the generals wanted and burdened those he did send with the task of building a Western-style civilization where none had existed before. This was a good short-term tactic since it placated hawks who were afraid of total withdrawal but didn’t alarm the doves too much since he included what they had long demanded from the Bush administration: a timetable for departure.

But the Washington Post poll shows that Obama has lost 7 points on his handling of Afghanistan since they last polled the subject in July, now 46 percent. On the question of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, only 36 percent approved. It’s up 3 percent from last month, but disapproval is up 4 points to 52 percent.

In both venues, Obama is publicly calling for America to stay the course – to keep plugging away in Afghanistan and to wait for new sanctions to work on Iran. But the same political, military and diplomatic realities that prompted him to adopt his Goldilocks stance in the first place make the status quo a loser for Obama.

But what to do? Flee Afghanistan? Bomb Iran? Not a lot of good choices out there since any sudden actions threaten the remnants of Obama’s foreign-policy coalition.

He’d better do something, though. When Americans hear a steady stream of bad news from the Middle East while they are paying more at the pump, they reasonably conclude that American policy in the region is making their lives worse.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on