By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama delivered on another foreign policy promise on Friday with plans to pull the last U.S. troops from Iraq. But in a re-election campaign all about the weak U.S. economy, he may not get much credit.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi -- these are all dead U.S. opponents that Obama can claim a measure of credit for getting.
Now add to that Obama's announcement on Friday that the eight-year war in Iraq is ending, fulfilling a campaign goal he made in 2008 when he declared the conflict a misguided mistake by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
In any other year, Obama might be able to ride these accomplishments to re-election in November 2012. But with the economy teetering and Americans hungry for jobs, the national security successes may only inoculate him from Republican criticism of his foreign policy.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Obama has shown a decisiveness and coolness of character that will help him in 2012, when Obama is seeking a second term in office. And he called it proof that Obama was able to do the job that his chief opponent for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, said he could not with a famous TV ad.
"We now know the answer to the question of whether he's good at answering the phone when it rings at 3 a.m. to tell him there's a crisis," said Shrum, who was 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's campaign manager.
But will voters care?
For clues, look at what happened to Republican President George H.W. Bush two decades ago. He saw his approval ratings rise past 90 percent after U.S. forces won the first Gulf War against Iraq, only to see his popularity tumble due to an anemic economy.
Bush lost the 1992 election to Democrat Bill Clinton, whose campaign mantra was, "It's the economy, stupid."
Now look at some numbers: Obama's job approval rating was at 42 percent on Friday with 74 percent saying the economic outlook was getting worse, according to a Gallup poll.
The biggest number he faces is the 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
"The debate this year and next year is going to be overwhelmingly focused on the economy, on jobs," said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson. "Foreign policy and international affairs are really going to be sort of pushed to the background."
As political experts attest, however, it is never easy to oust an incumbent president who has the advantages of the office to make his case and ample campaign funds to portray his opponent in a negative light.
Much about politics is about positioning, and Republicans were reluctant to cede much ground to Obama on foreign policy.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House spokesman for George W. Bush, said Obama's announcement has to be seen in context, that it was Bush who had established the end of this year as the timetable for a U.S. pullout from Iraq, a date he declared when he visited Iraq in 2008 and just missed being hit by a shoe thrown by an Iraqi.
Still, he said, Obama deserves some credit. "Unlike Jimmy Carter who was vulnerable on both domestic and foreign policy, Barack Obama heading into this election will not be as vulnerable on foreign policy," Fleischer said.
Carter, a Democrat, lost his re-election bid to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Republicans raised questions about Obama's Iraq announcement because he had failed to reach an agreement with Iraqi leaders to leave several thousands U.S. troops there as a counter-weight against Iran.
"The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government," said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
And Michael Goldfarb, a Republican national security expert, said Republicans have plenty of ground to make a foreign policy case against the president.
"The mix of it makes it very difficult to attack Obama on war-on-terror policies. Republicans will have a compelling foreign policy argument against the president on Russia, China and the Middle East. Those are not bright spots," Goldfarb said.
(Editing by Will Dunham)