WASHINGTON — President Obama will be in the White House until January 2017. His re-election and the political space it creates for him now allow him to advance his foreign policy priorities with confidence. These are, as he stated in the campaign, to vigorously fight terrorism, to end the war in Afghanistan, to use both pressure and diplomacy to deal with Iran, and to advance American global leadership.
But long before the American people endorsed these priorities in the election, the Republican standard-bearer endorsed them as well. In the final presidential debate that focused on foreign policy, Gov. Mitt Romney made it clear that he agreed with the president on issues ranging from how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program to ending the war in Afghanistan to fighting terrorism. And for that, the president won over undecided voters watching the debate, according to a CBS poll, by a 53 percent to 23 percent margin.
Interestingly, in Fox News exit polls from Election Day, of the voters who said that foreign policy was the most important issue to them when determining their vote, they voted 56 percent to 33 percent in favor of Obama — a near identical margin. This group was only 5 percent of the electorate, but in an election with only a 2 percent margin of victory for Obama, that national security voter gap was crucial to the president’s electoral success.
Yet while the president scored big for his handling of terrorism — including killing Osama bin-Laden, ending the war in Iraq, transitioning the war in Afghanistan, and using diplomacy as a major lever of American power — he also gained electoral support where his most vociferous political opponents had been very critical of his performance: the Middle East.
When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama’s success in attracting votes from those Americans most politically engaged on Middle East issues — American Jews — was neither surprising nor new. He had won 74 percent of the votes of American Jews in 2008, and again won by a huge margin in 2012, this time with 70 percent of the votes.
Yet what was most striking about his American Jewish support this year was that it came in the face of significant attacks against his Middle East policy, particularly of his handling of U.S. relations with Israel and U.S. policy toward Iran.
Neoconservative pundits in general — and Gov. Romney in particular — had been extraordinarily critical of Obama’s foreign policy performance. Romney’s favorite lines about Obama’s Israel and Middle East policies were that the president “threw Israel under the bus” and engaged in “an apology tour” for America when he visited Arab countries but not Israel, creating “daylight” between America and our closest Middle Eastern ally. And these critiques reached a climax when Romney attacked Obama for the brutal killing of four Americans, including our ambassador, in Benghazi, Libya.
Yet despite his misgivings about making these attacks, such as when Romney publicly backtracked on Libya at the presidential foreign policy debate and privately ordered his campaign, according to the Washington Post, to cease the politicized Benghazi attack ads, saying to aides that “We screwed up, guys,” and that “This is not good,” the Romney narrative was set. In this narrative, America was weak in the Middle East because of Obama, and I, Mitt Romney, would fix it. And with hawkish former Bush administration neoconservative advisors like Dan Senor and John Bolton surrounding him, Romney gave off the image of a second coming of the failed foreign policies of President Bush.
The only problem was that the American people weren’t buying it. And neither, it turns out, were American Jews.
According to an exit poll by pollster Jim Gerstein, Jewish voters — 10 percent of whom voted for president in 2012 based solely on Israel policy — trusted Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney on Israel by a margin of 53 percent to 31 percent. And on Iran, American Jews felt that Obama would do a better job than Romney by a 58 percent to 26 percent margin.
It’s clear from the overall results and these exit polls that Americans and American Jews in particular trust President Obama on the Middle East and foreign policy. So now what will President Obama do with this trust?
The first thing that the president should do is ignore the critics who argue that he needs to start a war with Iran to prevent its acquisition of a nuclear weapon, who argue that he should not pursue Middle East peace, and who argue that he should reject the changes sweeping the Arab world.
The president has been ignoring these critics and received much political pain for it. Well, the results are in. The American people want him to keep on doing what he’s doing. They trust him to keep America safe. They like his pragmatic, results-oriented, calm approach. They agree with him on his handling of the Middle East, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan and terrorism. And they want him to show America’s best face to the world in a manner that strengthens our global position.
A president has unique powers to navigate foreign policy with less constraint than he does domestic policy, but he also needs the support of the American people to do so. Unlike his predecessor, this president enjoys the backing of the American people, who like his brand of foreign policy. It’s time for his critics to recognize this reality as he charts his next steps. But I’m not holding my breath.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)