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Could foreign policy actually affect the 2012 presidential election?

As Fred Kaplan observed in Slate over the weekend, for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Democrats feel more secure on foreign policy and national security issues than the Republicans.  When John Kerry starts making derisive references to Rocky IV, you know something strange is going on.  As for Barack Obama, his convention acceptance speech was kind of middlin' -- except when he started talking about foreign policy.  As Kaplan noted: 

President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.

Now, Peter Feaver will dissent, but short of another terrorist attack he's not going to move public opinion on this issue:  every head-to-head poll has given Barack Obama a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security.  Every one.   

The thing is, I've stipulated over and over than Americans don't care all that much about foreign policy. So one has to wonder whether this really matters.  It's an election about the economy, and there's no way to sugarcoat the anemic job growth as of late.  So this foreign policy advantage won't amount to much, right? 

Probably....  but there might be two ways in which foreign policy might affect the electoral outcome.  The first, which as been playing out over the last year or so, is that Mitt Romney's relative competency on foreign policy has declined dramatically -- to the point where voters might believe that he's simply "below the bar."   

Let's roll the clock back a year.  When Romney was in the GOP primary squaring off against foreign affairs neophytes like Herman Cain and Rick Perry, it was pretty easy for him to look competent by comparison.  Romney had gone to the bother of collecting foreign policy advisors and produced a real, live foreign policy white paper.  Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich obsessed about EMPs.  Compared to his GOP opponents, Romney seemed competent by comparison

Since the primary season ended, however, Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign.  Whoever was wrangling the foreign policy advisors couldn't get them to shut up when they felt on the outs, so they kept on leaking -- sometimes to flacks who couldn't quite connect the dots.  Romney's public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base.  Then came July's foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops.  During and immediately after this trip, by the way, Obama doubled his lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney -- and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn't count.  Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans' issues, or war more generally -- the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952

At the same time that Romney's foreign policy "performance" has declined, the quality of his competition has improved.  Romney isn't running against a former pizza exec now; he's running against a sitting president who oversaw the end of the war in Iraq, the successful prosecution of the Libya intervention, a rebalancing of American foreign policy towards the Pacific Rim, and the death of Osama bin Laden.    

The trajectory matters because it calls Romney's basic competency on this issue into question, and because it complicates his fall campaign.  No, voters don't care a lot about foreign policy, but they do want to be comfortable that the guy they vote for can handle the commander-in-chief test.  A year ago, Mitt Romney would have cleared that hurdle with the American public.  Now I'm not so sure.    

Could the Romney campaign fix this?  Sure, they could criticize the president and refine their own positions.  But every day the Romney campaign tries to repair the damage is a day they're not talking about the economy.  And if voters start thinking about secondary issues, including foreign policy, then Romney could lose some votes. 

So the competency question is the first reason foreign policy might matter in this election.  I'll blog about the second reason... oh... about 26 hours from now. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Vote superhero in 2012!

As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy.  Why not look overseas, however?  After all, in North Korea, paramount leader  Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building."  Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife.  That's leadership. 

On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking.  Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level. 

In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.

While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....

Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?

He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.

Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!!  I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!

Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well.  And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership.  Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal  insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog.  But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!! 

I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership.  Here are a few suggestions: 

1)  Obama teams up with fellow superhero Cory Booker to fight crime in Newark -- Incredibles-style.

2)  Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly. 

3)  After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way.  With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.

Any other suggestions?