The Obama administration’s measured response to the increasingly brazen violence of the Islamic State, could become a factor in the November midterm elections, political experts are saying.
Republicans running to keep their seats, or to defeat Democratic incumbents, have already begun to raise ISIS, as the militant group that has beheaded two American journalists in as many weeks is known, and President Barack Obama’s recent comments about the lack of a clear plan for how to deal with it, as a campaign issue.
And there is a growing sense that having no clear strategy is emblematic of the president's response to most major crisis, like the surge of undocumented children at the U.S.-Mexico border and Russian aggression in Ukraine.
GOP pollster Edward A. Goeas III of the Tarrance Group said that voter uneasiness with Obama’s leadership can benefit Republicans, who hope to win the minimum six seats required to take back control of the U.S. Senate (they already have a majority in the House).
“A question by some pollsters is ‘Do you trust him to do the right thing?’ That’s one thing he’s always gotten credit for. But when they don’t like the job he’s doing, and they don’t trust him, that’s an awful deep hole to be in,” Goeas said.
“Democrats have to climb out of that hole,” he said. “Democrats like to say that Obama is not on the ballot. But he very much is on the ballot. They’re struggling across the country and they’re changing their message a lot to see what works.”
Criticism of the administration’s handling of ISIS has come even from Obama’s own party.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a TV interview that Obama had been "too cautious" in his response to the ISIS threat.
"I think I've learned one thing about this president, and that is he's very cautious,” Feinstein said. “Maybe in this instance, too cautious."
Democrats running for office already face the challenges that come from having an election when the president in your party has been in office for six years. At that point, historically, voters tend to drift toward candidates of the opposing party.
But Democrats already were nervous about the impact on them, and the party in general, of the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare.”
And Republicans have been watching to see whether Obama will take unilateral action on immigration, something he threatened, citing frustration about the stalled efforts in Congress on fixing the troubled system.
Republicans have said the president disrespects the role of Congress when he bypasses them and issues executive orders, and have indicated they will make it an issue if he decides to suspend deportation for potentially millions of undocumented immigrants.
In response to nervous Democrats running in November, however, Obama has suggested he will put off acting unilaterally until after the elections, saying that he wants to give Congress another chance to act on immigration.
Now, with the ruthlessness of ISIS coming to the living rooms of Americans – as the militants videotape the beheadings of Americans – yet another issue is moving to the front, potentially becoming just as important as local issues in the midterms.
“All of these incidents have a cumulative effect,” said Democratic pollster Fernando Amandi, “that could very well have an impact on the voting.”
But in politics, months can be an eternity, and what looms large now can fade from the radar, or just grow more urgent.
“A lot of what can determine if it will impact elections depends on how the president and the administration acts,” Amandi said, “whether they diffuse this or let it blow up.”
“There might be a push-back against the party in power in the general sense,” he said. “It’s too early right now to know if it’s reached that level in the local dynamics of the midterm elections."
"But if we see weekly beheadings and there's no sense that there's a strategy for how to deal with them, then it could impact the local dynamics of an election," Amandi said. "It could increase the sense of voter apathy and suppress the Democratic base, and incite the people who are in opposition to President Obama to come out to vote in stronger numbers."
New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, has tied what he and other Republicans say is Obama’s meek response to overseas threats to his Democratic opponent, incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Brown is drawing new attention to a measure he introduced when in the Senate that would rescind the citizenship of Americans who join foreign terrorist groups.
Playing Obama’s recent comment at a press conference last week, where he said that regarding ISIS, “we don’t have a strategy yet,” Brown released a campaign video entitled “No Strategy” that shows burning buildings and terrorists launching rockets as Obama speaks of not having a plan thus far.
Shaheen’s campaign released a statement calling for a tough response to ISIS. It said: “We must use every tool at our disposal, short of introducing ground forces in combat roles” to stop ISIS.
In Georgia, Republican candidate David Perdue is tying Obama’s measured response to ISIS to his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn.
He released a statement condemning “Obama-Nunn’s foreign policy failures” and drew parallels between Obama’s “no strategy” comment and a leaked Nunn campaign memo which described her position on Israel “to be determined.”
Of course, there are also deepening divisions within the GOP over how to move forward on ISIS.
The broader debate pits those who favor the GOP's traditional muscular foreign policy — a group that includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — and those, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who prefer a smaller international footprint.
The so-called isolationist approach plays well with grassroots activists and a war-weary public but worries many Republican officials and donors who prefer an aggressive American role in world affairs.
These intra-party divisions weren't much on display at a recent Americans for Prosperity event, but may become clearer as each one the crowd of possible presidential candidates tries to distinguish himself in the coming months.
Some of the loudest applause for Paul at the event came when he quipped, "If the president has no strategy, maybe it's time for a new president."
In an emailed comment, however, Paul elaborated by saying: "If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.