Special Report

The New National Security Party

Can Obama actually win an election on foreign policy?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If there is one piece of conventional wisdom that defines the 2012 campaign cycle thus far it is that well-worn nugget from the 1992 race, "It’s the economy, stupid." In a year in which unemployment will remain high and economic growth will continue to stagnate, foreign policy and national security is assumed to be low down on the list of voter concerns.

Not so fast. Foreign policy and national security — though likely not the decisive issue — has the potential to play an important role in the 2012 race. While voters may not cast a ballot because they’re overjoyed with Obama toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi, getting out of Iraq, or killing Osama bin Laden, foreign policy can help to shape the narrative of the 2012 race and the images of the two candidates. Passing the commander-in-chief test, especially for a GOP field as weak on foreign policy as it is, could make more of a difference this year than it has in decades. And in a cycle in which a Democratic president has perhaps the shiniest collection of foreign policy accomplishments in decades, it might be a bit too soon to write off foreign policy and national security altogether.

To be sure, rare is the presidential election in which foreign policy and national security are the dominant issues. But it does happen. In 2004, the first presidential campaign held after 9/11, George W. Bush’s edge on national security — combined with an edge on so-called cultural issues — gave him a decisive advantage. Similarly, in 1968, issues of war and peace were crucial as Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw largely because of dissension in his own ranks over the war in Vietnam.

The norm, however, is that foreign policy and national security issues affect general elections along the margins. They are central far less in their policy elements and more in how they build an image or specific narrative around a candidate. How presidential aspirants are perceived on foreign policy and national security can become something of a Rorschach test for how they are perceived as presidential timber (think: Dukakis in the tank). As Alex Cole, a political communication strategist, said to me, "people look at a leader in their totality; if they see them taking decisive action in one area it speaks to their larger character."

In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy hammered Richard Nixon and the Eisenhower administration over its lack of toughness in confronting the threat from the Soviet Union. While he didn’t win because of this, Kennedy’s focus on national security helped to minimize his vulnerability as the less-experienced candidate — and actually put Nixon on the defensive in the one area where he should have had a clear advantage. In 1964 and 1972, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were each hurt by their views on national security. Goldwater for being too hawkish; McGovern for being too dovish. And in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s problem was certainly the economy; but it was also, if not even more so, his dismal foreign policy performance (particularly in light of the Iranian hostage crisis).

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.

To get re-elected with lousy poll numbers and an underperforming economy Obama will have little choice but to make his opponent the focus — and their lack of foreign policy experience will almost certainly have to play a role in that particular campaign narrative.  As Jeremy Rosner, a political pollster and former Clinton administration National Security Council official said to me: "while one GOP candidate has gotten attention for 9-9-9, none of them has really established their credentials yet on 9-1-1."

If the White House wants to use foreign policy to its advantage, then it is incumbent upon the Obama campaign to play up the contrasts between the president and his rivals. But the extent to which Republican candidates attack Obama from the right or play up the need for more robust American power may do more harm than good. Such approaches run the risk of highlighting GOP policy preferences — including greater defense spending, an extended stay in Afghanistan, and the return of torture techniques — that are not necessarily shared by the general electorate (but may be popular among Republican primary voters).

Ironically, the smarter political move for Republicans might be to gloss over their foreign policy differences with Obama rather than accentuate them — but considering the nature of the GOP’s scorched earth campaign against the president that seems highly unlikely. They almost certainly won’t be able to help themselves.

Of course, that there is even a discussion about the national security advantages of a Democrat in a presidential election is in itself a sea change. Barack Obama has had more than his share of unusual political accomplishments — if he effectively can use foreign policy and national security to help get re-elected in this terrible economic climate, it may well be the most impressive one of all.

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