It is symptomatic of President Obama's perilous political status that he gets no boost from whacking bad guys.
Thanks to decades of successful Republican spin, Democrats are often perceived as insufficiently tough on America's enemies and averse to the use of military force. George H.W. Bush's mocking of candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- "I wouldn't be surprised if he thought a naval exercise was something you find in Jane Fonda's workout book" -- is not so different from Mitt Romney's warning about candidate Obama in 2008 -- that if he had to confront al-Qaida, he "would retreat and declare defeat."
And it was only last year that foreign-policy maven Sarah Palin decreed on Facebook that the terrorist threat calls for a commander in chief, not a professor. Yet we have barely heard a word from Palin, or from most of her party brethren, since it became clear that as a war-on-terror president, Obama has more in common with Tony Soprano than with Mr. Chips.
The president's 2011 kill list includes Osama bin Laden (by bullets), al-Qaida international operations chief Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (by drone in Pakistan), and, last month, the American-born cleric and al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki (by drone in Yemen, along with the American-born al-Qaida extremist Samir Khan).
Obama is launching many such drones without seeking the permission of the host countries, much less apologizing for them. In his first two years, he authorized four times as many drones as George W. Bush did during his entire second term.
Which is why the traditional Republican rhetoric -- such as Rudy "9/11" Giuliani's warning that a Democratic president would endanger America by "going on defense" -- now seems as outmoded as the audiocassette.
Yet even though Obama has erased that GOP story line by "making his bones" on national security (as Tony Soprano might put it), he can't seem to nudge his poll numbers northward. That's clearly because voters are far more focused on economic insecurity.
It speaks volumes about the zeitgeist that although Obama defies the Democratic stereotype -- the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey found 62 percent of Americans, and nearly that share of independents, like the way he has handled terrorism -- he scores a dismal 43 percent job-approval rating. At this point, most people seem fine with his leadership abroad, but they feel he hasn't led effectively at home, where the threat of job loss or foreclosure seems more real than that of al-Qaida.
This brings to mind the autumn of 1991 -- 20 years ago -- when the older George Bush was being hammered in the polls by recession, even though he had earned kudos as a commander in chief for Gulf War I. And we all know what happened to him in '92.
Nevertheless, the Obama team intends to highlight the president's national-security cred during the '12 campaign, and to contrast his record with the GOP candidates' dearth of foreign-policy experience. During the recent 9/11 anniversary, the White House circulated a list of its greatest terrorist hits that featured a sly reference to the younger Bush's wrongheaded invasion of Iraq: "Rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach, the Obama administration relies on flexibility and precision, applying the right tools in the right way and under the right circumstances . . . as we did in the case of Osama bin Laden."
Obama has been so hawkish on terrorism as to shrug off the critics (notably the ACLU and other civil libertarians) who questioned his targeting of American citizens. Awlaki, born in New Mexico and educated in Washington, was put on a government hit list last year, and when his father went to court to get him removed, Obama's lawyers got the judge to dump the case. The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process for U.S. citizens, but Obama clearly has no problems acting as judge, jury, and executioner in certain cases. And most Americans seem fine with that.
Given the current domestic distress, however, that's not the kind of strength they're looking for. Although most people believe Obama has kept us safe from terrorists, they think he's weak at home. In a CNN poll last month, 52 percent said he isn't "a strong and decisive leader." That's partly because he keeps getting rolled by congressional Republicans, but it's mostly because he is perceived as irresolute on fixing the economy.
Altering that perception is crucial to his reelection prospects. An explosive new book -- "Confidence Men," by the former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind -- may complicate his task. Granted, most voters won't read it, but its devastating findings are likely to seep into the public bloodstream. The upshot is that Obama was incoherent on the economy during his first two years because he couldn't lead his fractious economic team.
Suskind, who in previous books was tough on George W. Bush, writes that Obama tried to achieve consensus where none was possible. Rather than take a stand in economic meetings, he'd allow them to devolve into debating societies. Suskind writes: "Decisions were left unmade; policies drifted without direction. ... The president seemed to grasp the nature of key policy dilemmas, like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer. The problem was in guiding the analysis toward what a president is paid, and elected, to do: make tough decisions."
Naturally, the White House has been trying to knock down the book's conclusions, and some commentators have taken issue with certain quotes, but it has the whiff of veracity.
It would be ironic indeed if a Democratic president ran afoul of the electorate not for being insufficiently forceful abroad, but for his weakness on the kitchen-table issues long perceived as Democratic strengths.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.