The dark-horse of foreign-policy will ride again in a bizarre mirror-image redux of the 1992 election. As Bush campaigned on foreign policy achievements, Clinton enlisted the American public in an economic argument. Bush, by failing to adapt, was rewarded with loss as an incumbent. November will be a repeat of that dynamic–but reversed–and thus foreign policy will be the most important issue.
Foreign policy offers Obama the ability to upend the incumbent-challenger spread—to define the electoral argument on his own terms. Foreign policy is Obama’s strongest suit, his most glaringly positive cost-benefit ratio. Given the fact that campaign season is now, more than ever, marked by what Camus called “an intellectualism sufficiently unbridled to make abstract the concrete,” candidates cannot ignore the electorate’s thirst for authenticity and principled stances. In elections, novelty trumps content, and muddled speeches on economics have been the content for many months. Novelty, thus, lies in foreign policy.
Obama stands to gain most by radically re-casting his presidency: touting his achievements overseas, appropriating the fervent popularity of Hillary Clinton, and defining Romney’s foreign policy cadre as a third Bush-Rumsfeld term. If Romney wins, the possibilities for geopolitical change are endless, and endlessly harrowing: a rush of oxygen to our smoldering feud with Russia, escalation in the South China Sea, an irresponsible defense budget, and casual descent into war with Iran.
Despite stark foreign policy differences, Romney has little incentive to deviate from his “it’s the economy, stupid” requiem. He’s not running on a platform, but on the fact that he is not Barack Obama, and the President has indulged him thus far. In their ad campaigns, both candidates have with Nixonian dexterity avoided taking stances or advocating policy, each of them icons for vaguely emotional opposing worldviews. Romney holds no positions, Obama cannot movingly articulate his own. Romney’s America is a deadline middle-school research paper writ large; Obama has failed to convincingly explain or popularize any of his policies.
Foreign policy will not be important because American voters care—they don’t—but because it represents a break from four years of boring, boilerplate speeches. Obama’s campaign bet last autumn that upticking economic indicators would float him to a win, but the May jobs report ended all that hope. Obama now faces the necessity of opening a new front to release pressure on his economic record and avoid treading electoral water. Plus, Obama cannot actually do much to affect the economy, given a Republican House with cynical disincentives to implement short-term stimulus. By contrast, he’s in full control of American foreign policy until November, and there are signs the Obama campaign has begun to recognize this. The tectonic shift began in May, when Obama frontpaged the bin-Laden raid, alighted in Kabul, and reaped the benefits of Stuxnet and drone warfare, all to remind voters of his vicious counterterrorism record in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – and his avoidance of a costly war in Libya. The popularity of the inchoate Obama Doctrine denies Romney an intellectual beachhead on foreign policy and also primes voters for the still-untouted diplomatic successes of Hillary Clinton.
The Secretary of State enjoys a heavenly approval rating, and advertising her on the campaign serves the double purpose of readying the Democratic Party for 2016. She presided over a brilliantly cautious East Asian maneuvering, management of the Arab Spring, and a recommitment to multilateralism. The only major foreign-policy failure, chilly relations with Israel, is commonly attributed to Obama himself, and is the single price he’ll have to pay for focusing on foreign policy.
Accordingly, Clinton’s quiet, but effective steering of American policy can be contrasted with the single-mindedness of the Romney advisorial team by highlighting its ties to the Bush administration, smearing it with liberal usage of “neocon,” and by convincing the American public that a Romney regime will choose war with Iran.
For a war-weary, distrustful American public, successful negotiations with Iran will pay substantial electoral dividends, and Obama’s fate is wholly in his hands here. Paradoxically, this being an election year redounds to Obama’s benefit: the Iranian regime, having studied Romney’s squad, will be more likely to take a less-than-perfect deal under Obama rather than risk near-certain war with Romney. Lastly, the reluctance of young voters to countenance a Romney-led war with Iran offers fertile political soil to mobilize otherwise apathetic youth. The last time the U.S. was not at war, everyone entering this essay contest was learning intermediate grammar in middle school.
The campaign has so far been “a trivial comedy for serious people,” as Wilde put it, a static state of affairs that augurs well for Romney’s campaign strategy of “I’m not Obama.” The attractiveness, to Obama, of redefining the election’s focus, demands cashing in his political capital, the bulk of which is stored in Foggy Bottom.