Mitt Romney, encouraged by the Obama administration’s flawed approach to security in Libya and its muffed response in the aftermath of tragedy, is engaging at least part-time in a classic Karl Rove tactic: going straight at an opponent’s strength to try to make it a vulnerability.
The Romney campaign says it will not seek to make foreign policy the focal point of the campaign. Nevertheless, Romney accused President Obama of letting U.S. leadership “atrophy” in an op-ed article on Monday in the Wall Street Journal, and plans to give a major foreign policy speech next week.
Romney advisers said the topic is an addition to Romney’s arguments against Obama’s economic record, and is one more area that presents a clear choice between what adviser Kevin Madden called Romney’s vision and Obama’s “lack of leadership.” He said the foreign-policy discussion includes national security policy and “President Obama’s proposed cuts affecting military readiness.” (Those would be the cuts Congress and Obama agreed to in case a different agreement to reduce the deficit could not be reached, and they are cuts which Obama does not want to happen).
Should Romney refocus on Libya and national security? He fumbled the issue with a premature, inaccurate and ill-advised statement before it was known that Sept. 11 attacks had killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But since then Obama and his team have provided many openings with their evolving explanations about the circumstances and perpetrators of the attacks. On top of that, questions are mounting about the administration’s response to deteriorating security in Benghazi before the attacks.
Congressional Republicans and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan are leading the charge, with Rep. Peter King and others calling on U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to resign for saying the attacks arose spontaneously amid protests against an American-made film snippet mocking Islam. Ryan refused to go that far on the Laura Ingraham radio show on Monday, saying he wants to know what Rice knew when she made that statement on Sunday shows two weeks ago.
But Ryan did argue that the Libya situation reflects “a broader picture, which is the absolute unraveling of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.” Romney expanded on that contention in his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, saying that “our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them.” He accused Obama of weakness, incoherence, misunderstanding American values and stepping away from U.S. allies.
Obama has been bulletproof until now on national security, due largely to the killing of Osama bin Laden in a raid he ordered, buttressed by drone strikes that have wiped out much of al-Qaida. Nor has it hurt Obama that he ended the Iraq war and is winding down in Afghanistan. But Middle East unrest, including the Libya attacks, Syria’s continuing crisis and renewed violence in Afghanistan, are threatening the perception that Obama has matters in hand.
Polls that measure Obama’s standing in the security arena are mixed. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows slippage for Obama in the area of handling international affairs, from a 13-percentage-point lead over Romney in an early September poll to a 5-point lead now. Yet on handling terrorism, Obama’s 11-point lead three weeks ago has risen to 14 points. Nearly two-thirds in the new poll say Obama knows enough about world affairs to be an effective president, compared with 51 percent for Romney.
A new Fox News poll finds that Obama leads Romney by 11 points in handling foreign policy, down from 15 points two weeks ago. But his lead on handling terrorism rose from 8 points to 10 points over the same period.
The muddled poll results may be part of the reason Romney is not going all-in on making the foreign-policy case. Beyond that, by massive margins, voters continue to rate the economy their top concern, and domestic policy is the scheduled subject of the first presidential debate on Wednesday.
Yet perhaps even more than the sagging economy, which most voters still blame on George W. Bush, foreign policy is the chink in Obama's armor. The best use of foreign policy from Romney’s standpoint may be to highlight rising tensions and violence around the world in hopes of shaking voter trust across the board in Obama’s brand of leadership.
The potential payoff is that Romney will remind voters of Ronald Reagan and “peace through strength.” The risk is that his calls for more U.S. “resolve” and more aggressive promotion of U.S. values around the world will bring to mind a far more recent president whose aggressive, 9/11-driven policies had exhausted much of the country by the time he left office in January 2009.
Sarah Huisenga and Rebecca Kaplan contributed.