Vice President Joe Biden speaks on the Obama administration's foreign… (Lucas Jackson, Reuters )
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 gave the Democratic ticket greater heft on foreign policy, often a perceived weakness for Democrats in presidential races.
Now, just shy of the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the president's reelection campaign is trying to use Biden to turn national security into a political weapon against Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee.
In a blistering speech Thursday in New York, Biden quoted Romney as saying in 2008 that it was "not worth moving heaven and Earth, spending billions of dollars" trying to catch the Al Qaeda leader.
FOR THE RECORD:
Biden foreign policy speech: An article in the April 27 Section A about a foreign policy speech by Vice President Joe Biden said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had served as secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the Navy. —
Biden then suggested Democrats print a campaign bumper sticker: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
"You have to ask yourself, if Gov. Romney had been president, could he have used the same slogan in reverse?" Biden asked. "People are going to make that judgment. It's a legitimate thing to speculate on."
Whether that argument gives President Obama an advantage at the polls, or simply blunts a Republican line of attack, is unclear in an election season that is likely to hinge on pocketbook concerns.
But as Obama prepares to make his first official public campaign appearances on May 5, Biden's speech represents an effort to quickly frame the election on Democratic terms.
Next month will give Obama two opportunities to show himself as a confident leader on the world stage, with the Group of 8 leaders summit at Camp David and a NATO summit in his hometown of Chicago.
If he succeeds, Obama will be the rare Democrat to control the national security debate. In 2004, John F. Kerry highlighted his military service record at his nominating convention, only to see the issue backfire when a conservative-backed ad campaign questioned aspects of his Vietnam record.
This year marks the first presidential election in nearly 70 years in which neither major party nominee served in the military. The last time was in 1944, when DemocratFranklin D. Roosevelt, who had served as civilian secretary of the Navy, won reelection by beating Republican Thomas Dewey.
The GOP has gained little ground by criticizing Obama's foreign policy record so far. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month found that by a double-digit margin, voters said Obama was stronger than Romney on national security and foreign policy issues.
But Romney had the advantage on jobs and the economy, which voters say is a bigger priority. A recent Pew survey found that the percentage of voters who say terrorism is very important in determining their vote is down 9 percentage points from 2008 and 16 percentage points from 2004.
In focus groups of voters in battleground states conducted by GOP-aligned Resurgent Republic, the issue of national security was raised only rarely, typically when the voters were asked to identify Obama's successes.
"But [it] just gets so overwhelmed by economy, jobs, spending and debt that it gets so little airtime," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who oversaw one of the discussions.
In his 45-minute speech at New York University, Biden tried to link the president's successes in foreign affairs to his stewardship of the economy. He argued that the auto industry rescue and other economic policies "made us stronger not only at home, but abroad."
He also blamed Romney's "loose talk" of war with Iran, in part, for unsettled oil markets and higher gas prices at home. Republicans have blamed Obama's energy policies for a recent surge in prices.
The Democrats' focus is not without risk. The political advantage could shift before November, particularly given the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, Europe's economic crisis, the precarious state of the war in Afghanistan and other hot spots.
James Carafano, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the Obama campaign had "done everything possible to try to get through between now and November with nothing happening. It's kind of the opposite of wag the dog, and the October surprise."
"Unless there is something catastrophically bad or catastrophically good that happens between now and the election, people are going to vote for their candidate based on other issues," he added.
"Foreign policy highlights many of the president's strengths — this balance of deliberation and decisiveness — and highlights a lot of Romney's weaknesses, of both not being sure quite where he stands and also that it seems he's surrounded by the very people who got us into this mess from the far right," said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who is an analyst for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
To the extent that Romney has engaged with Obama on foreign policy, he has focused on the administration's tense relationship withIsrael'sleaders and alleged "appeasement" of Iran.
He also pounced when Obama was overheard recently telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have greater "flexibility" to negotiate on missile defense in a second term.
But Romney's response, in which he told a television interviewer that Russia was the nation's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," offered Biden the chance to punch back, accusing him of a "Cold War mind-set."
"Unfortunately, Gov. Romney's apparent determination to take U.S.-Russian relations back to the '50s also causes him to misstate the facts," he said.