By Judson Berger, ,
Published December 20, 2015
The rise of the Islamic State threat has, in a matter of weeks, turned the 2014 midterm election on its head, leaving Democrats and Republicans alike scrambling to show their hawkish side on national security and terrorism -- shelving for now the partisan sparring over ObamaCare, and the multiple scandals that dominated headlines and threatened to define the Obama administration.
With just nine weeks to go before voters decide the makeup of the next Congress, ISIS, Ukraine, Gaza and Boko Haram have supplanted the IRS, Benghazi, NSA data-gathering and the VA on the lips of candidates -- and the minds of voters.
The result is a race that's looking much different than the last off-year midterm cycle. Four years ago, Fox News polled voters on their top issues at the ballot box -- the economy was at the top, and Iraq was at the bottom.
While the economy still matters, recent polling shows voters want a tougher approach to foreign policy, as Islamic State militants ravage northern Iraq and Syria and threaten western interests.
Candidates are giving it to them. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who faces a Republican challenge from former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie in November, on Wednesday urged the Obama administration to present a "clear strategy" for "eliminating" the Islamic State threat.
"The United States should not take any military options off the table, because stopping ISIL is in the national security and foreign policy interests of the U.S. and our European allies," Warner said in a statement.
The sudden focus on foreign policy poses a challenge for both parties.
Republicans, who have been pulled in an isolationist direction by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and budget-minded Tea Party groups, are adjusting their tone. Even Paul, while saying President Obama must make his case for military action to Congress, told Fox News on Wednesday that the terror group has "absolutely" declared war on America. (And for the record, Paul says he is not an "isolationist".)
For Democrats, the focus on the Middle East allows candidates to -- at least briefly -- get off the defensive on ObamaCare and administration controversies ranging from Benghazi to IRS targeting.
But the furor over terror threats means there's less room for Democratic candidates to tout modest domestic gains like job creation or the rebound of the stock market. And new polls show that the president suffers in public opinion on foreign affairs, leaving Democrats once again putting distance between themselves and the commander-in-chief.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who's in a race against former GOP Sen. Scott Brown, did exactly that when she issued a Twitter rebuke of the president on Wednesday after he said the goal is to make the terror group "manageable."
"Do not believe ISIL is 'manageable,' agree these terrorists must be chased to the 'gates of hell,'" she tweeted. The comment was a reference to Vice President Biden's vow, at an event on Wednesday with Shaheen, to pursue the militants "to the gates of Hell."
Lara Brown, associate professor of political management with George Washington University, said the economy -- and the "languishing recovery" -- likely will remain a top issue in the fall.
But she described voter perceptions of Obama's leadership abroad as a factor.
"I think that puts Democrats, especially those that are more moderate ... in a more difficult position, because they need the president to take a strong stand so they can say they are standing behind the president," she said.
Brown said the president could still "get back on top" of the narrative. "To a certain extent, the jury's out on where we are on this," she said.
A fresh GWU poll underscored the president's vulnerability on the subject. The poll of 1,000 likely voters, taken Aug. 24-28, showed 58 percent disapprove of his handling of foreign affairs. A Pew Research Center and USA Today survey also showed 54 percent see Obama as "not tough enough" on security issues. That's a turnaround from when Obama ran in 2012 in part on the successful mission to take out Usama bin Laden.
The same Pew poll showed dramatically changing attitudes toward America's role in the world, after years where fatigue from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars appeared to be setting in. The share of Americans who now say the U.S. does "too little" to address world problems roughly doubled since November 2013, to 31 percent. The share who say the opposite fell sharply, from 51 to 39 percent. The survey of 1,501 adults was taken Aug. 20-24.
As Democrats try and toughen their tone, Republicans are doing the same -- and going after the president for a strategy they say is in shambles.
Brown, Shaheen's opponent, said this week that America's enemies have been "emboldened by the Obama administration's incoherent foreign policy. "
He released a scathing web video juxtaposing Biden's 2012 claims about Obama's "strength" with ominous footage of Islamic militants and the president's recent gaffe where he said "we don't have a strategy" yet to address ISIS in Syria.
The ad ends with the text "Obama Biden -- a foreign policy failure."