The instant Barack Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring the big knock against him was that he didn't know a darn thing about foreign policy. And that his greenhorn experience would sooner or later come back to haunt him once he squared off with the big boys and girls in the presidential debates. It has. A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that Obama has taken a sharp nosedive in the ratings in his overheated tiff with Hillary Clinton too grab the top Democratic spot. That was predictable.
When Obama said that he would talk to America's pariahs, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, the North Koreans and Iranians, it made some sense. After all America's foreign policy would be a pretty pathetic state of affairs if a president, his Secretary of State, and his ambassadors just talked to their friends and ignored their enemies. That's a sure fire prescription for deepening tensions, conflicts, disputes, and triggering cold and even occasionally hot wars.
But unfortunately Obama didn't stop there. He popped off about mounting search and destroy operations in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally. Obama came off as worse than naïve and confused. He came off as a walking foreign policy contradiction. That's the kiss of death for a head of, or potential, head of state. That type of contradiction and the public fears that it stokes has been the death knell for presidential candidates and even presidents. Remember Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's gaffe in 1964 about nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union. A gleeful Lyndon Johnson jumped all over that and Goldwater spent the rest of the campaign trying to defend the indefensible. Jimmy Carter's botched rescue mission to free American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran effectively sunk his re-election bid. Clinton went straight for the jugular after Obama's seeming slip and slide on foreign policy and she surged in the polls. Democrats by huge margins say that she's the best qualified to handle the Iraq war, the terrorism fight, and foreign policy issues.
But even if Obama had done and said everything right on foreign policy issues, his slide was inevitable. In fact, there were signs that Obama could hit the wall with voters, and the issue would be his fitness to wear the tag of commander-in-chief. That's not just a political ceremonial title. The voters want and feel most comfortable with a president that has a firm grasp of how to deal with and head off a crisis when it occurs in a world hot spot. That person must be firm, resolute, understand the strengths and limits of diplomacy, and most importantly understand when to use or not use military force.
The lack of that last quality has been the single biggest cause of the mess that President Bush has made in Iraq. It's why his popularity ratings still wallow at ocean's bottom. He's a sitting president and the public is mercilessly punishing him in the polls for his foreign policy bumbles and stumbles.
It would be worse for Obama if he should by some miracle beat out Clinton or Edwards for the Democratic nomination. His political and foreign policy missteps would make it virtually impossible for him to unhinge one, let alone two states away from the Southern Republican bloc. The Democrats need that to comfortably assure victory.
The solid South -- that is, the South that is mostly white, conservative, male, pro-war and anti-big government -- vehemently opposes any weakness in dealing with America's perceived foreign enemies. The Southern strategy has proved to be a winning formula for GOP presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. Southern white males more than any other group have bought the Republican's anti-government, anti-liberal line. Bush bagged more than 60 percent of the white male vote in 2004. The percentage of the white male vote that a white male Republican candidate likely will get won't change much in 2008.
If Obama were the Democrat of choice, that percentage the Republican might get might jump even higher. Colin Powell found that out when he briefly toyed with a presidential run in 1996. Despite his enormous popularity and crossover appeal, he ultimately decided not to run, and one of the reasons was his concern that race would be an issue and a liability. And there were no voter issues with him on his ability to handle foreign policy matters.
In a head to head contest with Obama in the South and America's heartland states Republican presidential nominee Rudy Giuliani or even John McCain would destroy Obama. They wouldn't have to say a word about his foreign policy greenness to scare voters away. Obama has already done that himself. Now he's forced to spend time and energy trying to do damage control. And this will make look even more wobbly to voters. Though it's still early in the presidential game one thing is clear, Obama is the first casualty of Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.