For 2012, the foreign policy and national security discussion starts from an unusual jumping off point: both issues are a net plus for the Democratic candidate. Since the late 1960s (one could go even further back, to the "who lost China?" debate of the 1950s), the reigning stereotype of Democrats in national politics is one of weakness and fecklessness. For decades, Democrats have bent over backwards to neutralize that image by trying to sound as tough as Republicans on national security and occasionally supporting inadvisable foreign wars for fear of being attacked as weak (see: Vietnam, Iraq). But not since the 1940s, has foreign policy performance or acumen been seen as a Democratic advantage. This year it is.
Obama's greatest foreign policy edge might be not that he has a good story to tell, but that his opponents don't. Not that this will stop Republicans from trying to portray the President as an un-exceptionalist, apologist for American power. But there are dangers in such an approach. As Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt wrote a few weeks ago, the "GOP simply doesn't have any foreign policy issues on which to attack him without sounding either ignorant or unhinged." If you don't believe the good professor, check out last Saturday's national security debate.
Moreover, Obama's success in wiping out the top echelons of al Qaeda, ending the unpopular war in Iraq, winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, and helping topple Qaddafi can be used to bat away GOP attacks -- and perhaps be a rationale for why the president deserves four more years.
National security is actually one of the few areas where Obama's poll numbers provide glimmers of hope for the White House. The country generally gives him high marks for being a strong leader, for confronting terrorism, and for keeping Americans safe. Voters can expect to see campaign ads depicting the president's foreign policy and military successes in a way that will provide them with a more comprehensive and positive impression of Obama's performance as commander-in-chief.
The closest incumbent analogy one might make to Obama's current plight is that of George H. W. Bush, a commander-in-chief with a sterling foreign policy record and a dismal economy when he faced the voters in 1992. One might assume that Obama would face a similar situation to Bush in seeing his foreign policy record subsumed by high unemployment and a lousy economic outlook. The difference, however, is that as a Republican, Bush was expected to win foreign wars and be competent on national security. His advantage was already baked in. As a Democrat, Obama's success represents the exception -- not the rule -- and provides him with a political boost that wouldn't exist in the same way for a Republican.
Lastly, since Obama doesn't have to worry too much about playing defense, he actually has the rare opportunity to go on the offensive by, ironically, playing up the inexperience of his opponents. None of the likely GOP nominees has any serious foreign policy background -- and if the most recent Republican national security debate is any indication, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, this has the potential to make them vulnerable.