Foreign Policy and the 2012 Presidential Election

In a little over six months, voters in both major American political parties will begin the official process of selecting their respective presidential nominees.  Of course, the race for the White House in 2012 unofficially began on 5 November 2008 (the day after Barack Obama won his first term) and really picked up steam after the historic gains made by the Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.  For the next seventeen months, we will be inundated with an avalanche of partisan hyperbole, attack ads, apocalyptic rhetoric, and utopian promises for the future as the candidates and their surrogates on both sides spend upwards of $2,000,000,000 to win the biggest prize in politics.  That, as Everett Dirksen would say, adds up to some real money.  Regardless of who ultimately wins, though, it should be entertaining.  The spectacle of the quadrennial U.S. presidential election campaign certainly makes for compelling political theater and will have significant ramifications for the country going forward.

It will be intriguing to see the extent to which foreign policy will play a key role in the 2012 campaign.  Conventional wisdom suggests that elections in the United States turn almost exclusively on economic considerations and domestic policy, that national security affairs do not significantly affect U.S. presidential elections.  Indeed, scores of academic studies have argued that pocketbook issues far outweigh international factors in terms of voter interest and decisive influence on voting patterns.  The precipitous decline of George H.W. Bush’s political fortunes in the 1992 campaign provides ample evidence of this axiom.  Bush enjoyed a 92% approval rating in the wake of Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, but an opportunistic Bill Clinton took advantage of the incumbent’s lack of interest in domestic politics (and the quixotic candidacy of Ross Perot) to demonstrate that it was, in fact, “the economy, stupid” that shaped voter behavior.  Similarly, the implosion of the housing market and subsequent recession in the fall of 2008 contributed to the scope of Obama’s victory over the more experienced foreign policy expert, John McCain, despite the wide-ranging international challenges facing the country.

Yet history has also shown that foreign policy can, and frequently does, play a crucial role in determining who sits in the Oval Office.  In every election between 1952 and 1972, foreign policy clearly exerted substantial influence.  In 1968, for example, the Republican presidential nomination clearly pivoted on the issue of the Vietnam War.  Richard Nixon’s deft, if ambiguous and disingenuous, handling of the conflict contrasted sharply with the struggles of his main GOP rivals, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller, and his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey.  As one account of the 1968 election argues, “Nothing is clearer than the imperative that an account of the politics of 1968 must start with Vietnam, the progress of which dominated the struggle for the Presidency from first to last.”[1]  Twelve years later, as Timothy Stanley explains in his recent book on the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, Edward Kennedy’s insurgency was derailed by the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Stanley argues that the campaign was “influenced by a series of foreign crises that gave President [Jimmy] Carter the opportunity to regain popularity,” and strongly suggests that had it not been for these contingent international events that were out of his control, Kennedy would not only have likely vanquished Carter but conceivably could have defeated Reagan in the general election.[2]

So what does this suggest for the 2012 election cycle?  Obviously, the domestic problems facing the country will take center stage.  While the worst of the recession seems to have passed, key economic indicators remain sluggish, unemployment continues to be highly problematic, and the national debt continues to spiral upwards to unprecedented–and unsustainable–levels.  Moreover, Republicans will attack the administration’s record at home, with particular focus on the “Obamacare” legislation, energy policy (“drill, baby, drill!”), and the expansion of the regulatory state.  But we can also expect that Obama’s reelection campaign will have its hands full when it comes to dealing with GOP criticism of some of the president’s questionable foreign policy decisions during his first term.  Thus, although it would appear that domestic issues will play a considerable role in the 2012 election, it will be imperative that Barack Obama and his Republican challenger pay close attention to the potential impact of foreign relations in the campaign.

To be sure, the eclectic field of Republican candidates will have plenty of ammunition with which to attack the administration on foreign policy questions.  Many of the international problems facing the United States on 20 January 2009 remain unresolved, and over the past thirty months the administration has been forced to deal with an array of new challenges with varying degrees of success.  Most recently, for example, the president’s speech on the problems between Israel and Palestine and his subsequent public clash with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the administration’s proposals underscore the continuing problems in the Middle East.  In terms of the electoral calculus, the episode could come back to haunt the Obama campaign.  Support of Israel has long been a central and widely shared tenet of U.S. foreign policy, and the Jewish vote could prove critical in the key swing state of Florida. 

Interestingly, however, to this point Republicans have been reluctant to directly and consistently challenge the administration for its foreign policy decisions, perhaps preferring to keep their powder dry for the heat of the campaign.  But we can expect to see an escalation of harsh and visceral criticism of Obama for his handling of the Arab Spring movements, the involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya without congressional sanction, and the on-going and expanded war in Afghanistan (among other issues) before too long.  Republicans would be foolish not to seize on these vulnerabilities.

Moreover, foreign policy will certainly influence the selection of the GOP nominee.  Some pundits suggested that Osama bin Laden’s death might secure a second term for the president.  And while Obama will certainly use the successful raid as a centerpiece of his reelection bid, he could face some of the same challenges identified by political scientists Richard Eichenberg and Richard Stoll, who noted a “steady and seemingly inexorable” decline in George W. Bush’s popularity after his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.[iii]  From a Republican perspective, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) made it clear that he “would use this as a teachable moment to our party and the country that national security really does matter” as the campaign evolves.[iv] 

But what will Republican voters look for in a potential commander-in-chief?  Most likely, they will select a candidate who exemplifies what Colin Dueck argues are the overarching constants in conservative and Republican foreign policy:  consistent, hard-line nationalism; a commitment to strong national defense; comfort with the use of force; a determination to maintain a free hand internationally; and a tendency to be “relatively unyielding” toward U.S. adversaries as the hallmarks of that hawkish policy.[v]  The key for whoever wins the GOP cage match–Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michelle Bachmann, Rudy Guiliani, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry…or “none of the above”–is how effective he or she can be in forcing the administration on the defensive when it comes to questions of foreign policy, which has traditionally been a strength for the Republican party in national elections.

Not only will foreign policy influence the outcome of the election, but the presidential campaign will undoubtedly influence U.S. foreign policy from now until 6 November 2012.  Specific foreign policies might not affect a voter’s decision, but they do speak to a president’s job performance and the public’s perception of his leadership skills.  As a result, domestic political calculations exert a tremendous influence on the way presidents formulate foreign policy.  Political scientist Miroslav Nincic argues that electoral logic “affects the timing of important decisions” and “creates discontinuities in the substance of foreign policy.”  As a result, “politicians often adjust their stances according to expected political beliefs–a tendency implying that the conduct of U.S. international affairs is, in part at least, shaped by domestic political and electoral logic.”[vi]  Melvin Small agrees.  “During that [election] year,” he writes, “because almost everything that presidents do or say in the international arena affects election prospects, they tread cautiously, or pander to popular nationalist sentiment in ways that are not always defensible in terms of the national interests.”  And Ralph Levering suggests that “Elections are significant because presidents and their advisers shape their policies and rhetoric party out of fear of what the voters might do in the next election.”[vii]  Much of the impact that foreign policy will have on the 2012 presidential election will hinge on what Obama does (or does not do) over the next seventeen months as he reverts to campaign mode.  As former Kennedy administration speechwriter Theodore Sorensen noted, “In the White House, the future rapidly becomes the past; and delay is itself a decision.”

The contemporary world remains a dangerous place, and the United States continues to have broad global interests and obligations.  It is imperative, therefore, that the occupant of the Oval Office be able to articulate and implement a coherent foreign policy consistent with those responsibilities.  Thus, even if domestic issues and the economy dominate the campaign, national security considerations should be weighed deliberately by both the candidates and the voters in 2012.  Like Joe Biden said in the 2008 Democratic primaries, you never know what might happen when that 3:00am call comes into the White House.


[1].  Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama:  The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (New York:  Viking, 1969), 21.  For a full account, see Andrew L. Johns, Vietnam’s Second Front:  Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington, KY:  University Press of Kentucky, 2010), especially chapter 6.

[2].  Timothy Stanley, Kennedy vs. Carter:  The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul (Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 2010), 5, 119.

[iii].  Richard C. Eichenberg and Richard J. Stoll, “The Political Fortunes of War: Iraq and the Domestic Standing of President George W. Bush,” http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/271.pdf.  Accessed 30 May 2011.

[iv].  Quoted in Politico, “2012 GOP Race Gets Wake-up Call,” 3 May 2011.

[v].  Colin Dueck, Hard Line:  The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2010), 2-3, 291.

[vi].  Miroslav Nincic, “Elections and U.S. Foreign Policy,” in Eugene R. Wittkopf and James M. McCormick, eds., The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy:  Insights and Evidence, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 122-123, 127.

[vii].  Melvin Small, Democracy and Diplomacy:  The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789-1994 (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), xii; and Ralph B. Levering, “Is Domestic Politics Being Slighted as an Interpretive Framework?” SHAFR Newsletter (March 1994), 20.