President Obama visits with U.S. troops at Bagram air base in Afghanistan… (Pete Souza, White House )
Reporting from Washington —
President Obama's first news conference of the year was loaded with questions on Iran, Israel and Afghanistan; notably absent was almost any talk of the still-limping economy. That's just the way the president's campaign team wants it.
As he positions himself for a close-fought reelection battle in which domestic issues — particularly the economy — remain weak spots, foreign policy has emerged as an area of strength for Obama. That reverses decades of political tradition in which Republicans have been able to characterize Democrats as soft on national defense.
Thanks to some key successes as well some missteps by his opponents, Obama has been able to take advantage of an enviable combination. He can portray himself as strong — the president who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden — while still speaking as the candidate of diplomacy, as he did Tuesday when he accused Republicans and others of "beating the drums of war."
The president's confidence has been on full display recently. He eagerly put a spotlight on his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his handling of tense negotiations on Iran. He used his significant platform to belittle his GOP rivals' criticisms, dismissing their words as "big talk" from small-time players.
In a more intimate setting he boasted outright.
"When it comes to foreign policy, I'm actually finding it very interesting," Obama told a group of donors last week. "The other side, traditionally, seems to feel that Democrats are somehow weak on defense, and they've had a little trouble making that argument this year."
There is plenty of time for the advantage to shift before November. Any number of foreign policy challenges, most notably the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and its impact on gas prices, still threaten to undermine the president's narrative and, consequently, his reelection hopes. President Carter's approval ratings soared immediately after Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, only to plummet leading up to election day the next year as the crisis lingered.
Still, for now, Obama is taking full advantage of the president's prerogative on foreign policy.
"They're not commander in chief," Obama reminded reporters Tuesday, when asked about Republican critics. On Wednesday, a top Obama strategist showed that the campaign may be evoking that image a lot.
"If you don't have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party," David Axelrod said in response to a question about GOP candidates' reaction to radio host Rush Limbaugh, "how are you going to stand up to [IranianPresidentMahmoud] Ahmadinejad?"
The three leading Republican presidential candidates this week offered indications of how they planned to counter such questions as they rushed to take a harder line against Iran's nuclear program. Former Sen. Rick Santorum accused the president of weak support for Israel. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested his administration would have already launched a strike, saying the trigger for military action — the so-called red line — already had come. "The red line is now," he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called Obama "America's most feckless president since Carter" and argued that he did not have an effective policy to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The criticism speaks to what GOP analysts say are Obama's vulnerabilities — his relationship with Israel and the perception of inconsistency and indecision.
"He's not going to get a free ride on foreign policy. He has a very spotty record," said Richard Williamson, a former official in both the Reagan andGeorge H.W. Bushadministrations and an advisor to the Romney campaign. Iran has moved closer to developing a nuclear weapon under Obama's tenure, he said, pointing also to continued "authoritarian drift" in Russia as a failure of Obama's attempt to "reset" relations.
"In 2008, our challenge to Barack Obama was that he was inexperienced and naive. In 2012, he's experienced, and we now know he's naive," he said.
But Williamson's critique was less harsh on the issue most Americans follow closely — counter-terrorism — underscoring how difficult the anti-Obama argument may be on that issue in a campaign. He gave the president credit for the killing of Bin Laden and the death of Moammar Kadafi in Libya and noted that the president had accepted and embraced theGeorge W. Bush administration's policy of using drones to fight militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Still, he said, "two deaths does not a foreign policy make."