WASHINGTON — The killing of an American-born cleric in Yemen underscores a re-election reality for President Barack Obama: He may have a string of counterterrorism successes and high marks from the public on foreign policy, but neither is likely to help him hold the White House.
For the Obama administration, it's a frustrating bottom-line.
When the first-term senator won the presidency, questions lingered about his readiness to handle national security matters. Yet Obama has received wide praise for operations that have killed terrorist leaders, most notably Osama bin Laden in May, and Anwar al-Awlaki on Friday.
Al-Awlaki, an American citizen targeted in a U.S. drone attack, was deemed by the administration as having a "significant operational role" in terrorist plots. They included two nearly catastrophic attacks on U.S.-bound planes, an airliner on Christmas 2009 and cargo planes last year.
Obama also can claim credit for aiding Libyan rebels in ousting Moammar Gadhafi, for supporting other democratic uprisings in the Arab world, for drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for negotiating a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
But barring unforeseen events, the nation's stubbornly high unemployment rate and turmoil in the financial markets mean people are far more likely to vote next November with the economy foremost in their minds, not the president's record on foreign policy and terrorism.
That's bad news for the administration because the public gives Obama far higher approval ratings on terrorism than on his handling of the economy.
In fact, Obama's approval rating on terrorism was higher than on any other issue, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in late August. It showed that 60 percent of those surveyed approved of his handling of terrorism. Just 36 percent approved of his handling of the economy, an all-time low for Obama.
Obama's overall approval rating also fell to an all-time low in the poll, 46 percent.
The re-election picture gets even gloomier given that 92 percent of those questioned said the economy was an extremely or very important issue. By comparison, 73 percent put the same emphasis on terrorism, but even they're divided over whether Obama should be re-elected.
It's also unclear whether the killing of al-Awlaki will bring Obama any new political support. The fiery American-born cleric had a hand in several high-profile terror attempts on the U.S., but his name is hardly as familiar to most Americans as bin Laden.
Obama's orders for U.S. special forces to kill bin Laden during a raid on his Pakistani compound did give the president's approval rating a bump. But it proved fleeting, further evidence of the secondary role of terrorism for voters.
"It's not 2004," said Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This isn't the primary issue facing the United States. The primary issue is the economy and jobs. That issue is going to overshadow anything we do overseas."
The joint CIA-U.S. military airstrike that targeted al-Awlaki and killed a second American citizen wasn't without controversy.
The attack apparently was the first time a U.S. citizen was tracked and executed based on secret intelligence and the president's say-so, raising questions about the reach of presidents' powers.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a GOP presidential contender, called it an "assassination" and said Americans should not casually accept such violence against U.S. citizens, even those with strong ties to terrorism
But most other top Republicans running for Obama's job saw little downside in praising the president for his role.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry congratulated Obama, along with the military and intelligence agencies, for "aggressive anti-terror policies." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney commended the president for his efforts to keep Americans safe and said al-Awlaki's death was a "major victory" in the terrorism fight.
With the first nominating contests about three months away, foreign policy and terrorism have been virtually absent from the Republican race. When the issues have arisen, most GOP contenders have tried to portray the president as a weak leader. It's a sentiment they hope taps into voters' frustration with the economy.
Bruce Jones, an expert on transnational threats, said Obama's success against terrorist leaders may help counter that GOP strategy.
"At the very least, it takes away from the critics the idea that he can't lead, that he doesn't understand those kinds of issues," said Jones, also a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Beyond the counterterrorism efforts, Obama aides say they believe the president will get credit come Election Day for his foreign policy achievements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as for his support of other democratic uprisings throughout the Arab world. They say the president has boosted U.S. standing in the world, making it easier to get international backing for his policies, rather than having to go it alone.
But there is some concern among Obama backers that a foreign policy issue most likely to find a place in the 2012 campaign is one that has achieved little success: securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
On that vexing issue, Obama finds himself caught between Republicans and some Jewish voters painting him as anti-Israel, and much of the world community, which disagrees with his opposition to Palestinian efforts to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations.
Associated Press writer Phillip Elliott and news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report. Associated Press writer Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
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