In an election as close as this one, it is the little intangibles—that intuitive sense of confidence (or lack thereof) about a candidate that ambivalent voters carry with them into the booth—that can make all the difference. And although we’ve heard that this election will be almost entirely about the U.S. economy and not foreign policy, President Obama will make his national-security record a centerpiece of his closing night at the Democratic National Convention this week.
Why? Because arguably no Democrat since John F. Kennedy has run as tougher and more trustworthy than the Republicans on national security. Obama plans to do just that. He has chosen Sen. John Kerry—a war hero and candidate to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State in a second term—to deliver a speech arguing that Obama “has restored America’s leadership in the world” and “has taken the fight to our enemies,” according to a campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Obama campaign will contrast the president’s record with Romney’s hawkish but scattershot statements on the stump, characterizing the GOP’s usual we’re-tougher-on-defense tack as empty and dangerous rhetoric. Romney “has embraced the go-it-alone, reckless policies of the past,” the official said, adding that Democrats will seek to identify Romney with the overextensions of the Bush administration.
The Democrats’ eagerness to highlight national security is a dramatic contrast to the past four decades or so. Going back to 1968, when Vietnam dominated, Hubert Humphrey and then George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon as peace candidates. In 1976, Jimmy Carter campaigned in favor of détente and arms control with the Soviets. In 1980, Carter seemed weak after the Iran hostage crisis spurred the disastrous Desert One rescue mission. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran by touting soft power and globalization. And in 1996, Republicans called him meek for directing cruise-missile strikes and not harsher methods against Saddam Hussein, while dithering over Bosnia after the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia.
As the White House sees it, Obama succeeded where Clinton and Carter failed, undertaking an enormously risky mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden. That was only part of a broader program that Obama secretly inaugurated upon taking office, tripling the number of Predator drone strikes. He has also withdrawn troops from Iraq and begun to do so in Afghanistan, without any stellar success but also without a notable catastrophe.
Republicans still insist that Obama is weak, that he “led from behind” on Libya (giving NATO, Britain, and France the lead), and that he has hesitated in supporting democracy movements from Iran to Yemen. At the same time, however, Romney has not yet articulated a coherent vision of where he wants to take American leadership abroad, beyond advocating a stronger defense. And according to one Romney adviser who would discuss the campaign only on condition of anonymity, although the GOP candidate has a wide array of advisers, almost none of them consult directly with Romney.
Can a Democratic president really look more trustworthy on national security? With the election virtually deadlocked, Obama may not need to change many minds—only just enough.