A little more than four years ago, Hillary Clinton suggested then-Democratic primary opponent Barack Obama was so naïve on the world stage he’d need a “foreign policy instruction manual” should he win office.
Fast forward to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Obama, now the president, accepted his party’s nomination for a second term by touting his experience as a steady leader in the face of overseas crises and mocked his Republican challenger as “new to foreign policy.”
How times have changed.
But the president’s new tactic — to incorporate into his campaign message the sense that he is the tested leader, and that Mitt Romney is a newbie — could be a risky one. For starters, it recalls the very criticism against Obama, like the above line from Clinton, when he first ran.
“Obama had probably less foreign policy experience (when he first ran for president) than Romney has,” said Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University.
Schmidt also noted that Romney is hardly alone among non-incumbent candidates in not having a tremendous foreign policy background. “The truth of the matter is, presidents learn on the job,” he said.
Obama, in an official sense, may have had a bit more foreign policy experience when he first ran than Romney does today.
Obama, as a first-term senator, was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he took several foreign trips. He traveled in 2005 with Republican Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar to Russia and Eastern Europe to visit nuclear and biological weapons facilities. The following year, Obama traveled to the Middle East. Obama, the senator, made another foreign trip to several African countries in late 2006 as well.
Obama, though, downplayed the value of that experience during his 2008 primary run. ”Experience in Washington is not knowledge of the world,” he said in April 2008, according to an account from the time in The New York Times. “This I know. When Sen. Clinton brags, ‘I’ve met leaders from 80 countries,’ I know what those trips are like. I’ve been on them. You go from the airport to the embassy. There’s a group of children who do a native dance. You meet with the C.I.A. station chief and the embassy and they give you a briefing. … And then, you go.”
Obama instead had stressed his time living abroad, as well as a visit to Pakistan back in the 1980s.
Romney, though, also lived abroad — in France as a Mormon missionary — in the 1960s. And both Romney and Obama, as presidential candidates, conducted high-profile overseas tours to bolster their campaigns.
Obama’s, which included an address to a massive crowd in Berlin, was likely better received. Romney stumbled on his summertime tour abroad, most notably when he suggested Britain might not be ready for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Obama seized on that gaffe during his nomination address last Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.
“My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy,” Obama said. “But from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly. After all, you don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy — not Al Qaeda — Russia, unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.
“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” Obama said.
Obama went on to say: “You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
Schmidt said Obama may be trying to inject more foreign policy into the mix, not just to deflect from other issues but to defend his administration against a GOP talking point that the president is “leading from behind” on the world stage.
Indeed, the Romney campaign released a memo over the weekend that highlighted the president’s “manifold failures on foreign policy and national security.” While Obama touts the successful takedown of Usama bin Laden and the official end of the Iraq war under his watch, Republican claims he has done little to slow what they see as Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party’s 2008 nominee, critiqued both Obama and Romney on the foreign policy front in an interview with the Associated Press over the weekend. In the interview, McCain said national security was largely missing from the GOP convention.
“It’s the job of presidents and candidates to lead and articulate their vision for America’s role in the world. The world is a more dangerous place than it’s been since the end of the Cold War, and so I think the president should lead and I think candidates for the presidency should lead and talk about it, and I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been more,” McCain said. He was most critical of the current administration, on issues like Iran and Syria.