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Libya: Is Gadhafi's loss Obama's gain?

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
Moammar Gadhafi's fall may be a victory for President Obama, but it may not mean much to voters amid a sour economy.
Moammar Gadhafi's fall may be a victory for President Obama, but it may not mean much to voters amid a sour economy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Analysts generally see little domestic political gain for Obama in Gadhafi's fall from power
  • Most voters are far more concerned with economic than foreign policy issues
  • To extent foreign policy is an issue in 2012 election, Libya could help Obama's chances
  • Analysts also don't see much gain for Obama in terms of international stature

Tune in to "AC360" at 8 ET for live reports from CNN reporters on the ground in Libya, as rebels battle Moammar Gadhafi loyalists for control of Tripoli.

Washington (CNN) -- Roughly six months after President Barack Obama called on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down from power, it appears change has come to Tripoli. Four decades of iron-fisted rule are coming to an end.

So does this make you more or less likely to vote for Obama next year?

As the U.S. presidential campaign begins in earnest, that question is not far from the minds of top Democrats and Republicans. But for now it is questionable whether success in North Africa -- assuming the NATO-led mission is ultimately viewed as a success -- will matter much in economically stressed middle America, many analysts say.

Analysts are also unsure what, if any, impact Gadhafi's fall will have on Obama's stature and reputation overseas.

U.S. voters so far appear to have given little thought to the war in Libya. Sixty percent of Americans cited the economy as their No. 1 concern in an August 5-7 CNN/ORC International Poll. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were the top concern of a mere 5% of Americans -- a figure barely outside the poll's 3% margin of error.

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Translation: Who's up or who's down in Tripoli may not matter to someone who can't find a job in Dayton, Ohio.

To the extent that war-weary Americans have been paying attention, they haven't been terribly supportive of the U.S. role in NATO's air campaign. Only 35% of Americans supported U.S. military action in Libya in a July 18-20 CNN/ORC survey, while 60% opposed any American military intervention there.

There's also little evidence that other recent foreign policy successes worked to Obama's advantage.

"After Osama bin Laden's death (in May), Obama's approval rating didn't rise at all in some polls," said Keating Holland, CNN polling director. "In others, it rose and then dropped back down the previous levels."

"We can't predict whether events in Libya will boost Obama's poll numbers," Holland said. "But if bin Laden's death did not lead to a permanent gain, it seems unlikely that removing Gadhafi from power will have a long-term effect on Obama's approval rating."

Politically speaking, is there any upside for the president?

"At the least, the situation in Libya should soften criticism last week by Republicans for the president being on vacation," said Paul Steinhauser, CNN deputy political director. "Obama's handling of the fighting in Tripoli is more ammunition for the White House that the president's stay in Martha's Vineyard is truly a 'working vacation.' And Gadhafi's ouster will also make it harder for the GOP presidential candidates to criticize Obama over his foreign policy."

Analysts also note that while the economy appears to be foremost on voters' minds today, 15 months is a lifetime in politics. It's not easy to predict where the country will be in November 2012.

Next year, "Obama will likely have two big achievements to brag about," Holland said, referring to bin Laden's death and Gadhafi's ouster. "That may not be of much help if the economy is still the No. 1 issue, but even if that is still the case, it's likely that at least one presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. And who knows if events between now and next November might make foreign affairs into a big worry for a significant number of voters."

Holland argued that "in the long run, (success in Libya) may not make voters feel better about Obama on the issues, but it may make them feel better about Obama personally."

"Americans seem to like Obama himself more than they like his stands on the issues," Holland said. "That helped him in 2008 and it may be his ace in the hole in 2012."

Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, told CNN there is a "limited upside" at best for Obama in Libya. There are, however, potential risks to the president's popularity if a post-Gadhafi Libya becomes unstable, he said.

In terms of governance, however, Obama's ability to help NATO prosecute the air war in Libya is a clear victory for the executive branch in its post-Vietnam struggle with Congress for control of U.S. foreign policy, Sheingate said. Despite the war's relative unpopularity in the United States, a sharply divided Congress proved unable to speak with one voice on the conflict, much less impose any sort of constraint on the president's power.

Ultimately, Obama was largely constrained only by his own pledge not to commit any U.S. ground troops to the conflict.

"As far as the institutional question, there are very few limits on presidential war powers," Sheingate said. "Presidents can deploy forces pretty much at will ... and (generally only) seek congressional backing for the use of force for political reasons, not constitutional ones."

Outside the United States, it is unclear whether the developments in Libya will do much to bolster's Obama reputation.

"Obama should get credit for making the call" and backing a NATO intervention, said Michael Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

But "I don't think it's going to make much difference" in terms of the president's or America's standing in other parts of the world, Rubin predicted. "Europeans are going to look differently on Libya a month from now once migrants start flooding across the Mediterranean."

"Also, if you thought Iraq's reconstruction was hard, at least Iraq had a structure on which to build a new government," Rubin said. "Gadhafi got rid of Libya's structure 38 years ago."

It's "ironic that Obama the Nobel peace laureate now attaches his legacy to war," Rubin said. But his stature "for better or for worse is defined by the global economy."

Middle East expert Shadi Hamid argued that to the extent leaders in Britain and France took the lead in NATO's air campaign, they are more likely to reap the political benefit of any successful outcome.

In many ways, Gadhafi's fall is "a vindication of Obama's decision to take military action. He can say the mission was a success," said Hamid, research director at the Brookings Institute's Doha Center, which focuses on Middle East politics. The Brookings Institute is a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

But "I don't think it's a very big boost" for Obama, Hamid told CNN. The United States "took a back seat and preferred to let others lead," he said, highlighting Europe's role in providing military training for the rebels.

A perception has taken hold, particularly in the Middle East, that Obama is an "overly cautious, weak leader who wants to split the middle (and) never takes it all the way," Hamid said. "Libya fits into that narrative of weak leadership."

"Whether that's fair is a different issue," Hamid said. "But you can certainly argue that those sentiments have taken hold."

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Gadhafi heard loud and clear
Moammar Gadhafi no longer has his Tripoli compound or his power apparatus. He is a fallen leader and a fugitive
A glimpse into the Gadhafi family
The Gadhafi family -- a large, at times quarrelsome clan that helped the embattled strongman hold onto power
CIA, Gadhafi spy ties revealed
Seized documents revealed a close relationship between the CIA and counterparts in the Gadhafi regime
Gadhafi nurse on life with 'Daddy'
Oksana Balinskaya served as one of Gadhafi's five Ukrainian nurses for nearly two years
Libya's other wealth
Archaeological treasures can be found all over the country, and UNESCO is worried
Ex-jihadist at heart of revolution
Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, who once fought with al Qaeda, is now commander of anti-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli
Real challenge may lie ahead
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says building a stable new regime could be as difficult as ousting Gadhafi
 
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