Libyan war rattles Democratic political strategists in lead up to 2012 presidential election

Democratic political strategists are deeply divided over the political risks and benefits of the Libyan intervention, the resulting media coverage and its impact on the fast-approaching 2012 election.

“The upside is that if the objectives are achieved, if Gaddafi — who has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. for decades — is removed from power, and if Libya becomes part of a narrative that the forces of political progress are taking hold [in Arab countries, then the voters will decide]… the president was measured, and his measured action has led to a successful outcome,” said Tad Devine, co-founder of Devine Mulvey, a Democratic consulting firm.

“I don’t see any upside, I don’t see him gaining him any voters,” said Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, a Democratic consultant who specializes in reaching out to white voters in Appalachia. The risk will be minimized if the intervention “is over in a day or two… [or] a week or two,” he said. The voters he watches are “tired of body-bags coming back to the mountains… we don’t need another American war now,” he said.

“It is appalling that the White House has failed to explain why we are there, and how long we’re going to be there,” said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist in swing-state North Carolina. Another war “is the last thing the economy needs,” he said.

Multiple polls show the president’s approval rating in the mid-40s, and his disapproval rating in the mid-50s. The available polling doesn’t show strong support for the intervention, and an eve-of-war poll issued by IBOPE Zogby on March 21 showed that 50 percent of Americans support some military intervention to help Libyans, while 38 percent oppose it.

The public’s support for the intervention may not be strong, John Zogby told TheDC. “There is deep distrust among Republican voters for anything-Obama,” and some legislators are annoyed by the administration’s failure to brief them prior to action, he said. Some voters oppose the U.S. getting involved in a “third war,” and some don’t think intervention in Libya is in the national interest, he said. Still, public support for intervention can go up once U.S. forces are committed, he said.

Republican legislators and commentators are divided. Many lack confidence in Obama’s generalship, but are also reluctant to undermine White House, legislative and public support for the anti-jihadi campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, Obama has backing from Republican-affiliated advocates for Arab democracy, including Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is a political risk” for Obama, he said, but “I’m not going to fault Obama for taking that risk” on behalf of national-security concerns.

To succeed in Libya, the president should be more assertive, declare that Gaddafi must go, try to kill Gaddafi, and also immediately recognize the rebel groups as the legitimate government of Libya, said Rubin. “He should have recognized an alternative government yesterday,” he said.