The Presidency and foreign policy (plus a note on Polls and Wisconsin)

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The 2012 presidential race was supposed to be about the economy. At least that is what Mitt Romney wanted. His goal was to emphasize this experience as a businessman in contrast to Obama’s failed leadership in an economy with still high unemployment. If his first message was to steal a page from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign–“It’s the economy stupid”–his convention speech shifted it to the Reaganesque “Are you better off now than four years ago.” Run on the economy, as the conventional wisdom would have suggested, and it should be a path to the White House since presidential re-elections are generally referenda on the economy.

Yet things have just not worked out for Romney. First it was Obama picking up where Newt Gingrich left off, turning Romney’s Bain Capital experience into a liability and symbol of vulture capitalism. Despite the persistence of a weak jobs economy, Romney has lost his advantage on this issue as the NY Times reports that polls now give Obama a slight nod on this issue.

The it was Paul Ryan. Ryan diverts attention away from the economy and to budget cuts and Medicare. Or Atkins in Missouri has pushed the agenda to abortion and social issues. Or Obama and the Democrats have made the campaign about gay rights. Whatever the diversion, though, Romney has not been able to score on the issue that should have been his strength–the economy.

And now the agenda has shifted again–to foreign policy. Until now the presidential race was about domestic policy. Yes Romney tried in his RNC speech to talk about Afghanistan and the war there, but generally the polls suggested that this is not what is driving the public or the race. But how recent and potential events are placing foreign policy back perhaps to the center of the race, again taking the presidential contest further away from the economy.

Two events this past week were particularly important. There is the killing of the US ambassador in Libya along with the anti-American uprisings across the Arab world, and then the demand by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the US to draw a red line for Iran regarding nuclear weapons. Both of these events thrust foreign policy and events into the middle of the presidential race.

At first blush, Obama is coming our a winner. He does so because of Romney’s ham-handed criticism of the president regarding Libya that was factually wrong and ill-timed, criticized even by fellow Republicans. This is not Romney’s first mistake. He crudely criticized the UK regarding the Olympics and also while visiting Israel his comments about Palestinians was criticized. His views on Russia too seem antiquated. The point here is that Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience is showing, and it creates an opportunity for Obama to look presidential and qualified. Romney’s problem is not unusual for presidential challengers when running against incumbents–the latter always look more experienced and qualified–the big exception being Jimmy Carter and the hostage crisis in 1980.

Generally foreign policy crises work to a president’s political advantage. It gives them the chance to look, while presidential and in control. People rally around the flag, especially if presidents act decisively. So far Romney has damaged himself and Obama has not hurt himself. But that could change.

Think of worst case scenarios–all October surprises. Israel bombs Iran. What does the USA do? Obama cannot ignore supporting our ally and with the Jewish vote critical to a Florida victory, he may have no choice but to intervene. How such a war will affect the presidential election overall is unclear. Conventional wisdom generally says the president should be helped with something like this, but America is war-weary.

A second October surprise-American hostages are taken at some other US embassy or another ambassador is killed. Images of Carter, Iran, and 1980 are invoked here. Carter’s impotence with the hostages–and a botched rescue mission–were not good for his image. Obama probably now needs to take some major foreign policy action to address Libya but what? In theory it and Egypt are our allies. Kind of hard to bomb them.

Other October surprises are a continued erosion of stability and civil war in Syria and financial solvency of the Europe. Overall, these foreign policy events are largely beyond control of Obama and all could dramatically change the presidential race. They also have domestic implications–look at the price of gas.

Overall foreign policy and international events run risks for both Romney and Obama. How these events play out are yet to be seen but they have placed foreign policy in the center of the race. For Obama it also shifts the race again off the economy and that might be good. For Romney, this may not be good.

Two Final Thoughts: Swing States and Labor Rights Wisconsin

Two other thoughts are in order.

Both the Financial Times and the New York Times have noted critical changes in the presidential race since the DNC. Obama and the Democrats got a convention bounce that the GOP and Romney did not. Obama picked up a couple of points in the polls but more importantly, he picked up some approval ratings. This may be the “sugar high” that Romney speaks of, but it is still significant.

But the bigger problem for Romney is that two swing states–Pennsylvania and Michigan–are no longer swing. Romney has effectively given up on them, reducing the number of swing states to eight or nine. The Financial Times reports nine swing states with Obama leading in eight, including a solid margin in Ohio. Romney may be close in the national polls but he is not doing well in the critical swing states-although he has a shot in Wisconsin

Finally, on Friday a Dane County circuit judge invalidated the law that abrogated public employee rights in Wisconsin. He did so on federal constitutional grounds (First Amendment freedom of association and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection grounds) along with state constitutional claims. Were the decision upheld on appeal it would be a real repudiation of the Walker and perhaps more significant that had he ben recalled.

However hold on with this case. It was not the best drafted opinion and the chances of it being upheld are iffy at best. Moreover, Walker will move for the decision to be stayed on appeal. It is not clear after reading it whether it restores collective bargaining rights and if so, when. In short, lots of questions remain regarding what the decision really means.