It's All Politics
11:59 am
Thu September 6, 2012

Obama Neutralizes A Typical Source Of GOP Strength

Originally published on Thu September 6, 2012 2:59 pm

Foreign policy and defense matters are normally a source of vulnerability for Democrats, but they're getting a fair amount of attention from speakers down in Charlotte.

"There are more mentions of Osama bin Laden than unemployment in the Democratic national platform," says Micah Zenko, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "You play to what your strengths are."

Democrats are mostly talking about domestic issues at their convention this week, but some speakers are addressing national security and veterans' issues. On today's undercard is Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee and was the party's 2004 nominee.

Republicans spoke little about national security at their convention last week in Tampa, Fla. In fact, GOP nominee Mitt Romney quickly drew criticism from Democrats for not mentioning Afghanistan in his acceptance speech.

Obama campaign aides have said the president will talk about the war during his acceptance speech tonight. He also is expected to speak to his broader agenda with regard to the rest of the world.

Obama has made good on his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, but has shown himself to be assertive through the heavy use of drone strikes and the bombing campaign that helped bring down Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

GOP analysts say Romney didn't devote much attention to foreign policy issues simply because voters aren't all that interested. Public opinion polls consistently show that only a handful of voters consider national security one of their top concerns.

"The American people are not focused first or foremost, or 10th or 10th-most, on foreign policy," says Danielle Pletka, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Pletka says Obama is, in fact, vulnerable on foreign policy questions. Romney has criticized the president for offering more apologies than leadership, and has pledged to take a tougher stance toward countries such as China, Russia and Iran.

Romney also says Obama has not been a reliable friend to Israel, so Republicans are certain to seize on the Democratic platform fight over continuing to recognize Jerusalem as its capital.

"If Democrats think that they can run on that foreign policy record and get a lot of additional votes on that record, I think that's just delusional," says James Jay Carafano, director of the foreign policy center at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Democrats say although Romney has talked tough, his actual differences with the president on national security are fairly minimal. They doubt he'll be able to make good on his intentions to boost defense spending significantly, and think his rhetoric belies the choices he'd make once in office.

"When you look at the fine details, which people like me have the luxury of being paid to do, Romney doesn't offer a clear policy alternative," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

After Obama took office, his foreign policy in general represented much less of a break with his predecessor, George W. Bush, than his campaign speeches in 2008 might have suggested.

"Obama always claims credit for ending the war in Iraq, but it was essentially the cover of a Republican administration that allowed Obama to do it," says Zenko, the Council on Foreign Relations fellow. "The only thing Obama did was implement the status of forces agreement signed by Bush."

Katulis, who wrote a column about GOP foreign policy divisions in The New York Times on Saturday, says — along with many other analysts — that Obama lacks any definable, grand strategic vision.

"If you ask, 'What is the Obama foreign policy?' — it's very hard to spot it," says Rajan Menon, a political science professor at City College of New York. "He's an issue-by-issue, pragmatic kind of guy."

That might suit voters just fine. Handling crises on the world stage is part of any president's job description, but polling suggests Americans don't want to get involved in major military interventions.

"On Syria, the president's caution mirrors that of most Americans," Menon wrote in The Huffington Post.

Obama may have neutralized most of the GOP's historic attacks on his party as weak on defense. But a period of relative quiet is one reason why foreign policy isn't likely to sway many voters in this election, one way or the other.

"If you look through history, it's never been less important, even at the end of the Cold War," Zenko says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.