WASHINGTON — This is the economy election, right? Tell that to the world.
President Barack Obama is getting another dose of the reality of his job: the out-of-his-control events that shape whether he will keep it.
He is lobbying Israel not to launch on attack on Iran that could set the Middle East on fire and pull the United States into another war. He is struggling to get world powers to unite on halting a massacre in Syria. He is on the defensive about staying in Afghanistan after a U.S. soldier allegedly went on a killing spree against civilians.
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And back home, where the economy is king, everyone is talking about the price of gasoline. Which, as Obama can’t say enough, no one can control right now.
The Republican presidential candidates don’t have to worry as much about all this because they don’t have the responsibility of governing – a luxury Obama likes to note, although he enjoyed the same when he was the challenger. The Republicans, though, are being drawn into events beyond their preferred message of the day.
For Obama, whose re-election bid looks rosier with every good month of job creation, the political risk in the least is that he gets knocked off message. That happened Monday when Obama and the White House spent a lot of effort trying to focus on energy, but the dominant news was the horrific rampage in Afghanistan.
The bigger worry for Obama is that all the outside events conspire to sour the public mood, give people more to worry about and create an opening for Republicans to challenge his leadership. Just because presidents may not be able to control problems does not mean they don’t get blamed for them.
“There are so many of them now, and dire ones,” said Barbara Perry, a scholar of the American presidency at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“People may not care much about what Israel is doing, or even what Iran is doing, but given American dependence on Mideast oil, that has a direct impact on the pocketbook. Do these things inevitably have an impact on the campaign? Absolutely, because they will be the questions put to the presidential candidates.”
As one example, the price at the pump carries political risk for Obama, who is taking a pounding over the issue in the polls.
The average price for a gallon of gasoline is now about $3.80, the highest ever for this time of year. The White House says anyone suggesting a quick fix is lying to voters. Instead, Obama pushes energy exploration across the board and reminds folks he championed a payroll tax cut that kept money in their pockets.
That doesn’t offer as much election-year satisfaction for the typical commuter.
“The reality is that the oil prices and the gas prices that we pay here in the United States are set on the global market,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters Monday. “We don’t set them, and we don’t control them. This president and this Congress can’t control those prices.”
Clearly. Obama has gotten used to this dynamic.
Good news has come before on the economy, only to be suffocated by outside events. Just a few months ago, Obama attributed a slowing economy to the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring and the European debt crisis (not to mention his ugly showdown with Congress over a near-government default).
Now sizable job growth has taken hold by the month, but that pattern is hardly assured through Election Day. Obama still has a wary eye on Europe’s economic stability, a slowdown in China could undermine the United States, and the turmoil surrounding Iran and Israel that could further jolt gas prices and, perhaps, lead to war.
It was a telling sign when Obama held his first news conference of the year last week and got not one question on the economy writ large. The focus was on the threat of a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Now the attention is back on the Afghanistan war as Obama warns against a hasty retreat.
So it goes for presidents.
The big problems of the day are covered by the media, evaluated by pollsters and viewed within the election context.
Still, the general election campaign is expected to come down to which contender has better answers for people looking for a job, a better career, a way to keep their house, a sense of security.
“The three most important issues of the election are the economy, the economy and the economy,” Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said.
Indeed, an Associated Press-GfK poll of issues last month found 91 percent of people said the economy was highly important to them. Obama’s team says the choice for voters is about restoring American security for all or going back to a free-for-all approach that led to the crisis. Republicans say he’s failed to lead.
The White House isn’t out to make this election about foreign policy, but Gibbs said “I don’t think it hurts” if the conversation turns that way.
Obama has a story to tell on the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ending of the war in Iraq, the squeezing of Iran through sanctions.
The direction of the war in Afghanistan has been on that list too. But now it’s a question, and Obama has to answer.
Afghanistan is raging with anti-Americanism after U.S. troops burned Qurans last month and, over the weekend, a soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians and burned many of the bodies.
Obama was questioned about the horrific incident by television reporters from around the nation. They had been invited to the White House to talk about energy, but they pushed him on when the U.S. will be getting out of Afghanistan too. Obama said the United States must not rush to the exits.
So the timetable remains: the end of 2014, at the latest, for Americans to get out of a combat role in Afghanistan.
And this one: a little under nine months left for any issue in the world to rock Obama’s re-election bid.