How will developments in Egypt play politically for Obama? Obviously, that depends on what happens in Egypt between now and 2012. But you can’t say that the optics have been very good for Obama so far. It’s not a good thing for a president when the Wall Street Journal is running the headline “Crisis Flummoxes White House” and his guy at the CIA seems to be getting his analysis from CNN. But things can always turn around. You can’t blame Democrats for hoping that instability in Egypt presents Obama with a political opportunity.
I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Let’s explore what’s probably the best-case scenario for Obama: suppose that sometime next fall, the Egyptian military turns over power to a stable government chosen through a free and fair election in which neither the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other anti-American constituency, participates. Assume, moreover, that the Obama administration’s fingerprints end up being all over that benign outcome to the point where a majority of American voters believe it wouldn’t have happened but for its adroit diplomacy. That would be a pretty formidable boost to Obama’s chances of reelection, right?
Probably not. Recall the political predicament of the George H.W. Bush administration in late 1991. On the face of things, its conduct of foreign policy couldn’t have gone much better. Bush had presided over a widely unexpected victory in the Cold War (and been a prominent part of the prior administration that was widely credited with administering the coup de grace to the Soviet Empire.) What’s more, he’d managed to rid Panama and the world of the narco-dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. And if that wasn’t enough, the Bush administration’s expert application of a military force and adroit diplomacy expelled Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in a way that had the Council on Foreign Relations crowd rhapsodizing about a “new world order.” You can argue, I suppose, that Bush's foreign policy achievements were never what they were cracked up to be. But you'd have a hard time convincing me that they weren't widely perceived as being major achievements.
Yet Bush's foreign policy triumphs didn’t buy him any slack from the Republican base for breaking his “read-my-lips-no-new-taxes” pledge or spare him a politically debilitating primary challenge from Patrick Buchanan in the 1992 election cycle. And they didn’t stop independent voters from deserting him in droves in the general election in the face of a pretty mild recession. Within a few months of Bush's foreign policy triumphs voters were asking him: "what have you done for us lately" and expecting an answer.
If Bush’s political experience is any indication, the impact of foreign policy on presidential popularity is hugely asymmetrical. There doesn’t seem to be much of a durable political upside to being seen to have gotten things right. Yet there’s a devastating downside to being perceived as having gotten things wrong--think of what looking clueless with respect to the fall of the Shah and the Iran hostage crisis did to Jimmy Carter’s political prospects. Obama probably has to contend with the same asymmetry.