Perhaps the two most important truisms about the politics of American foreign policy right now are: 1) Americans are pretty happy with Barack Obama's foreign-policy performance, and 2) they think George W. Bush was a foreign-policy disaster.
If you don't believe me, I present to you Vice President Joe Biden's major foreign-policy speech on Thursday, April 26, at New York University -- a combination of both the Obama administration's greatest hits and dark warnings that a Mitt Romney presidency would represent a return to the "failed policies" of the not-too-distant past, i.e., the Bush years.
Declaring that Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive, Biden aggressively defended the Obama administration's stewardship of the country's global interests. In key respects, it's hard to argue with Biden's mantra: The troops are out of Iraq, and they are starting to come home from Afghanistan; bin Laden is in fact dead, and America hasn't been hit by a major terrorist attack during Obama's presidency; and the country's alliances are in better shape, and relations with key allies have seemingly improved.
While some would no doubt quibble with Biden's taking credit for closing down foreign prisons and ending torture (while ignoring Guantánamo Bay and the administration's repeated executive power grabs) or boasting about Obama's development agenda, which has been anything but robust, the big themes of Biden's speech are compelling. More importantly, they are ones that have broad public support -- as indicated by Obama's sterling poll numbers on foreign policy and national security. This wasn't the usual Democratic fare of foreign-policy defensiveness and awkward chest-thumping (though there was a little of that). Instead, Biden's remarks represent perhaps the most confident and -- from the perspective of recent history -- counterintuitive foreign-policy speech given by a Democratic ticket since, well, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But it was the flip side of the vice president's argument that was perhaps most telling -- and indicative of how dramatically the foreign-policy terrain has shifted in just the past four years. Biden attacked the presumptive Republican nominee, Romney, for his inconsistency, recklessness, and occasionally contradictory statements on foreign policy. He hit him for opposing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and for his description of Russia as America's No. 1 geopolitical foe. He attacked him for his lack of foreign-policy experience (even dredging out a 2007 quote in which Romney said that a president needn't be "a foreign-policy expert" and could outsource that responsibility to the State Department). But the real crux of Biden's broad assault was the notion -- repeated over and over again -- that a vote for Romney would represent a return to the Bush years. Said Biden, in one of the speech's more quotable, albeit hackneyed phrases, "to the extent he's [Romney] shown any foreign-policy vision, it's through the glass of a rearview mirror."
According to Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who served in Bill Clinton's National Security Council, Republicans, in general, still maintain a reasonably positive foreign-policy profile -- and Democrats have yet to make the case that they are the better party on national security. The Bush years are seen as something of an outlier to the usual legacy of GOP competence on national security, just as Obama is viewed as an outlier from the Democrats' legacy of fecklessness. From that perspective, it wasn't hard to figure out Biden's objective -- to turn the Bush and Obama exceptions into a new political rule.