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Obama Needs to Run on His Foreign Policy Record

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Is President Obama missing a major reelection opportunity by neglecting to highlight his widely acclaimed successes on foreign policy?

Currently, Obama is hammering away at Mitt Romney's dismal job creation record as a former Massachusetts governor (2002-2006) and a co-founder of Bain Capital. While some top Democrats aren't happy with the tenor of Obama's Bain attacks, they appear to be swaying swing voters in some of the critical battleground states that Romney must win if he expects to prevail in November.

But the gains from these attacks could well prove short-lived. That's because Obama's own job performance is increasingly being challenged by a string of monthly job reports that have led most experts to conclude that the economic recovery has stalled. Last month's dismal jobs report sent shock waves through Wall Street. The latest jobs report, out today, on the heels of news that manufacturing has slowed for the first time since 2009, is likely to do the same.

In fact, outside the swing states, polls show that independent voters tend to trust Romney more than they do Obama when it comes to managing the economy. And yet voters in these polls say that they trust Obama far more than Romney -- by nearly 20 points -- as the nation's commander in chief. It's time for Obama to exploit this clear advantage.

Focusing on foreign policy isn't just about touting a single success, however. When Obama tried that gambit in late April -- on the anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama Bin-Laden -- it backfired. Criticism that the president was hogging the glory, and even insulting the memory of the U.S. Navy SEALS who conducted the raid stung the administration badly, and the president quickly backed off. But rather than retreat altogether, Obama needs to broaden his approach and fully incorporate foreign policy into his strategy for reelection.

By any reasonable standard, Obama's first-term foreign policy record is nothing short of astounding. On issue after issue, Obama has shown a steady -- indeed, steely -- resolve that has earned him major kudos from foreign policy specialists in both parties. Consider, for example, the following:
  • Two major U.S. land wars, both started by George W. Bush, are winding down. Obama, to the consternation of his base, pushed for a major "troop surge" in Afghanistan, but he also stared down his top generals and resisted their demand for a prolonged counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign. The Taliban is reeling, and the American pull-back, starting this summer, is real. Obama also resisted pressure to reverse the Iraqi withdrawal and wisely brought in members of the Bush-era negotiating team to help seal and bless the deal.
  • Obama boldly intervened in Libya to oust dictator Muammar Gadaffi and to protect Western oil supplies, and he did it with minimal financial cost and no U.S. troop casualties. Moreover, in contrast to his predecessor, he didn't act unilaterally but weighed in behind Europe and NATO. Republicans who charged the president with reckless "adventurism" have ended up with egg on their face. In fact, respect for multilateralism is back -- and under Obama, it's no longer just the "soft" option.
  • Obama has forged the closest American defense ties with Israel of any recent U.S. president, including Bush, while continuing to push for Israeli concessions on a Palestinian homeland. Obama has moved deftly, even winning strong support from the Israeli public, which says it wants its leaders to consult with Obama before taking future military action. Support from American Jews, despite concerns over friction between the White House and the Israeli Prime Minister, is holding steady.
  • Obama has also made China a key strategic priority, confronting Beijing on human rights, trade warfare, and economic spying, while bolstering America's military presence in the Pacific. Donald Trump may think America is getting snookered but most Americans, it turns out, see Obama's actions as judicious. In fact, leading foreign policy conservatives, including Robert Kagan, who was a national security adviser to John McCain, and has periodically advised Romney himself, have strongly praised Obama's entire Asia policy.

Some of Obama's strongest foreign policy critics, in fact, aren't on the right but on the left, which is disappointed that Obama hasn't closed the base at Guantanamo, has eagerly embraced "drone" warfare, and has denied more Freedom of Information Act requests than his predecessor. But such criticism -- while justified in some areas -- is short-sighted overall. Obama has initiated some seismic shifts in national security doctrine that have a real chance of reducing the prospect of global war. Most notably:

  • Obama has quietly but forcefully revised the Pentagon's long-standing "two-war" strategy that required an enormous conventional force structure supported by hundreds of American military bases. Under a new Obama plan, the number of soldiers in the Army and the Marines will decline by a remarkable 10-15 percent over the next decade, and a possible 36 percent over the long haul. And base closures, already on the increase, will accelerate. The Obama shift means, in effect, that the U.S. is no longer contemplating a protracted land war on its own.
  • Just as dramatic are the significant steps that Obamas has taken to reduce the threat of nuclear war by shrinking American and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals to their lowest levels ever. The arms reduction process actually started under the first George Bush, but Obama is proposing to take it much further, tackling the more difficult deep-cuts, especially in tactical weapons, all the while working with Russia to force smaller nuclear states to slow or eliminate their own weapons programs.

What does Romney have to offer, by contrast? A return to Bush-era neo-conservativism managed by the same people who brought us the Iraq war, and who see any retreat from American unilateralism as a sign of military weakness. They include former Bush State department officials Eliot Cohen and John Bolton, who've been pushing Romney to attack Obama for abandoning Israel and for crippling America's nuclear and conventional war capabilities. They're also suggesting that Obama is weakening the United States in the face of threats from Iran and failing to intervene decisively to bring down the regime in Syria.

Fortunately, much of the foreign policy establishment, including Republicans like former Secretary of State James Baker, aren't biting. In fact, there's even growing concern over Romney's call for a huge increase in U.S. defense spending over and above what the Pentagon under Obama is seeking. Romney's spending hike would cost the Treasury an additional $2.1 trillion, undermining the GOP's ostensible commitment to deficit-reduction, without necessarily enhancing U.S. defense capabilities.

How much does foreign policy matter? In the end, in a close race, it could matter a lot. One foreign policy expert, Bruce Jentleson, has noted that 8-10 percent or more of U.S. voters consistently say that foreign policy drives their vote. And the fact is, even those voters who say they're mostly concerned about their "pocketbook" still form powerful impressions about candidates and their leadership abilities based on more than their records as economic "stewards." These days, most voters know that America lives in a global world and that domestic and foreign policy are related, even if they're not always sure how. It's really up to the president to show how his handling of the trade deficit, increases in defense spending, or the threat of war can directly affect whether the economy grows or stagnates.

Some Obama successes, like his adroit handling of China, are inextricably tied to future jobs growth, in part through the recapturing of American jobs via "in-sourcing," It makes no sense not to make this connection more explicit. Other foreign policy accomplishments could help the president with specific voter groups, including disillusioned youth and veterans, both of whom are showing strong signs of defection. Obama's nuclear and conventional force reductions, for example, could galvanize his peace supporters but, as long-term deficit-busting measures, could appeal more widely, too.

In short, Obama seems to have a real opening on foreign and defense policy, which is something of a rarity for a Democratic presidential candidate. But he needs to seize this advantage now, before Karl Rove & Co. begin launching the kind of national security attack campaign that helped derail John Kerry's bid for the White House in 2004. Developing a broader reelection narrative will allow voters to appreciate just how much is at stake in the election this November. It will also sharply contrast the two candidates' leadership abilities and their fundamentally different visions for how America should confront the deeply intertwined global and domestic challenges of the 21st century.

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