Has Obama shed his Jimmy Carter image?

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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Politico’s Alexander Burns trumpets President Obama’s newly minted reputation as a tough-on-national-security leader. In “President Obama dashes ‘Jimmy Carter’ label” he notes: “Obama’s overall approval numbers have rallied since May 1, when he announced Bin Laden’s death from the East Room of the White House.”

Burns also quotes former Bush administration official Pete Wehner, who “described Bin Laden’s death as a political ‘circuit breaker,’ writing in Commentary magazine: ‘The specter of Jimmy Carter was beginning to haunt the Obama administration. For now, at least, that narrative is stopped in its tracks.”

Yet, it is far from clear that getting bin Laden proves Obama has shed his inner Jimmy Carter. The chief goal of the Obama doctrine is to do the minimum to get by in the world — not to do nothing. Each of his decisions to send troops into harm’s way, including the Seal Team Six strike on bin Laden, reflects the president’s minimalist approach to the exercise of American power. I outlined each of these in a post at Family Security Matters.

The bottom line is that when Obama’s foreign policy mirrors conservative foreign policy, his numbers go up. That should not come as much of a surprise. After all, most of the nation is center-right and, overwhelmingly, these Americans believe government should zealously uphold its constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.”

The problem with Obama’s consistently minimalist approach to national security and the use of force is that it is consistently predictable. That makes it easy for a determined enemy to frustrate. Minimal force and incremental commitments offer the enemy time to adjust. Gaddafi, for one, has shown that. He is still hanging on. At the same time, the clear reluctance to assert U.S. interests have let leaders in places like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China run circles around the United States.

The president fails when he follows his foreign policy instincts. He succeeds when he ignores them. To keep his poll numbers up, he will have to adopt a more conservative foreign policy overall. For Barack Obama to avoid becoming the next Jimmy Carter, he will need to recognize that what has brought him “success” is bending — and at times abandoning — his own doctrine.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.