Tale of the Tape

As the two heavyweights finally square up, who's got the advantage on the key foreign policy issues of the 2012 campaign?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Then there were two. With Tuesday’s announcement by Rick Santorum that he is suspending his presidential campaign, the November election title bout is now set. In the Democratic corner, hailing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing the blue trunks … Barack Obama! In the far-right corner, from the great state of Massachusetts, wearing the red trunks … Mitt Romney!

While the economy will almost certainly be front and center for the next seven rounds (er, months) of campaigning, foreign policy is likely to play an important, even decisive, role. So as the general election campaign kicks off and the two candidates prepare to go mano-a-mano, here are the five issues most likely to shape the foreign policy narrative of the 2012 campaign — and who’s got the advantage thus far.


It’s not 2004 anymore, when terrorism and the threat from al Qaeda was front and center in American politics, but that doesn’t mean the issue will be off the radar screen in 2012 — particularly if the Obama camp has anything to say about it. With the killing of Osama bin Laden (an issue that featured prominently in Davis Guggenheim’s recently released short film about the Obama presidency) and, even more important, the lack of any serious terrorist incident since Obama took office, this is perhaps the killer foreign policy uppercut for the incumbent.

Indeed, by one measure, it is the single issue on which Obama earns the strongest marks from voters — 63 percent of Americans approve of the manner in which the president has handled terrorism. For Obama, his effectiveness at "fighting terrorism" is more than just an issue advantage, it’s a key validator of his foreign policy performance, his leadership, and his fortitude in keeping America safe (or at least that’s how the White House will spin it). His continued ramping up of the drone war only reinforces the message that he’s not about to waver in the fight with al Qaeda or its affiliates and while there’s certainly criticism to made of the president over his failure to close Guantanamo Bay or his lack of fealty to protecting basic civil liberties — these are hardly place in which a Republican nominee not named Ron Paul is going to try and jab him. In short, Romney will have few opportunities to lay a glove on Obama on the issue of terrorism; the less he says about it, probably the better.

Advantage: Obama

Ending America’s wars:

Generally speaking, a Democrat incumbent who ended one war and wound down another during his presidency might be considered vulnerable to traditional Republican attacks of foreign policy weakness. Not this cycle. Let’s face it, Americans don’t agree on much these days. If Barack Obama says the sky is blue, a Republican might be inclined to argue "no, in fact it’s green … and blue is a socialist plot." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two notable exceptions. By wide margins, Americans are supportive of the U.S. pull out from Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan — even a majority of Republicans supported the president on the full withdrawal from Iraq. On Afghanistan, a majority of the country wants the United States to get out now, even before completing its current training mission of the Afghan Army. Another 60 percent now believes the war "was not worth fighting." Amazingly, these data points have not really dented Obama’s approval on this issue — which is just under 50 percent. That the president has escaped such little blame for a policy that is so deeply unpopular  and has been so badly managed, is truly one of the great enigmas of his presidency.

Nonetheless, the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan are both sources of support for president’s foreign policy performance — so much so that the Obama campaign has already begun attacking Romney for suggesting that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was precipitous and, in his words, "tragic." All of this leaves Romney in the rather unpleasant position of playing defense. If he criticizes the president for too rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan or — as he has been prone to do — hits him for supposedly putting politics ahead of the advice of his generals it will beg the question, "Does Romney want to stay longer in Afghanistan?" That hardly seems like a winning political stance for any candidate this cycle. So on this issue, Obama has not only a nearly impenetrable defense; he’s got a few good left hooks in the arsenal.

Advantage: Obama

Foreign policy leadership:

Ever since Jeanne Kirkpatrick spoke to the 1984 Republican Convention and called Democrats "Blame America Firsters," the issue of who is a better steward of the country’s global responsibilities has been a prominent feature of GOP campaign politics — and a winning one at that.

This cycle might be a little different; the very fact that it’s actually debatable is a rather large problem for Mitt Romney. Imagine if the Democrats were dragged into a real fight with Republicans as to which party will better protect Social Security. To get a sense of how bad things are on this point, consider this: according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, voters give the president a 17-point edge over Romney in "handling international affairs." That’s the biggest advantage Obama has on any one issue, with the exception of "addressing women’s issues," a topic that has been in recent weeks a disaster for Republicans. Voters also view Obama as a stronger leader (albeit by a more narrow margin). In short, while Republicans like to compare Obama to past failed Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter he is not.

Of course, none of this has stopped Romney from constantly telling voters that, unlike Barack Obama, he won’t go around the world apologizing for America. The fact that this blatantly untrue has hardly been a deterrent — and Romney likely won’t let up on it over the next seven months. Republicans have using the "we love America more"/"we’re stronger" card for generations — and no self-respecting Republican running for the nation’s highest office would cast it away so easily. As well they shouldn’t. Political stereotypes die hard and Romney’s only real hope of taking back some of the foreign policy advantage from Obama is to try to re-activate this toxic perception of Democrats. And it might just work among voters not favorably impressed by the president.

The dilemma for Romney is not only that he is facing a candidate who is more immune to it than maybe any Democrat in recent history, but also that his own lack of foreign policy background makes it an even more difficult case to make. Still, old habits die hard. On this one, you have to give Romney a puncher’s chance. Just don’t count on him scoring a knockout.

Advantage: Obama (slightly)


There are many foreign policy advantages that come from being an incumbent president, but having a country uniquely disliked by Americans trying to build a nuclear bomb is not one of them. As most foreign policy observers will tell you, preventing Iran from building a nuke is no easy task. It involves difficult diplomacy, presidential signaling, the weighing of military options, potentially difficult compromises, and the management of key allied relations.

Mitt Romney has none of these problems. He can simply lob rhetorical haymakers that hype up the threat of an Iranian bomb or offer Churchillian declarations about his intention to stop such efforts. For example, in an earlier GOP presidential debate, Romney said that with him as president, Iran would not get a bomb — but that under Obama, the mullahs will join the nuclear club. How exactly this would come to pass given that the two men have almost idenctical policy prescriptions is irrelevant in a dogfight. This is the benefit of being outside the tent.

That there is no easy solution to the problem puts Obama in the difficult position of having to speak in nuance; Romney meanwhile has the luxury of wrapping himself in the flag and speaking in chest-beating generalities (a bit like Rocky’s soliloquy at the end of Rocky IV)  As long as ambiguity remains around an Iranian bomb, no matter what progress Obama might make diplomatically, it will give Romney an opening. And from every indication he plans to exploit it.

Advantage: Romney


A newly emerging theme in American politics — one that began in the 2010 campaign cycle — is China bashing; and there’s a reasonable chance we may see more of it on the presidential level this year. Last fall, during one of the many GOP presidential debates, he claimed that "the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future." And in a February Wall Street Journal op-ed, he pledged to end "an economic relationship that rewards China’s cheating and penalizes American companies and workers."

Here again is one of the advantages of being a candidate that stands outside the tent. Like Bill Clinton’s "Butcher of Beijing" line in 1992, Romney can use crude political attacks against China that Obama simply won’t be able to engage in. There is practically zero chance that a sitting president would risk upsetting a strategically important country like China with such over-the-top rhetoric. Romney has no such constraints.

To be sure, it’s unclear whether attacking China will really hold much currency for any presidential candidate — the polling evidence suggests voters would prefer to see the United States build a stronger relationship with China than alienate it. Still, at a time of a rather uncertain and wavering recovery, economic populism always has a certain appeal. And at the very least, threatening to get tough with China is certainly consistent with Romney’s overall message that a different president would have helped shepherd a more robust recovery. In the end, Romney has little incentive to tone down the rhetoric. Like Clinton, he can dial it all back if he becomes president. So while brute force bashing may not win the day, it’s likely to have more political potency than Obama’s tip-toeing about his "Asia pivot."

Advantage: Romney

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