As he embraces direct talks with Iran and weighs his strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama is facing a new political threat from Republicans: Be hawkish on foreign policy or risk letting your party be painted as weak in next year’s midterm elections.
Top Republicans have adopted that line of attack in recent days, led by congressional leaders and at least two of the party’s possible 2012 presidential contenders.
Their warnings to the president mark a shift in tone and tactics for a Republican Party that had been largely supportive of Obama administration policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The GOP lost its long-held advantage as the party of national security when the public rejected the policies of former President George W. Bush in the 2006 and 2008 elections. But now, Republican strategists say that foreign policy could prove to be a potent weapon in 2010.
The Republican strategists are poring over Obama speeches, such as his June address to the Muslim world, that they can portray as apologies for American actions abroad.
Additionally, GOP strategists are homing in on Obama’s recent policy shift on missile defense, in which the administration decided to cancel a radar installation in the Czech Republic and ground-based interceptors in Poland that had been proposed by Bush to protect Europe from Iranian long-range missiles. Obama wants to focus instead on combating short-range missiles that some intelligence officials say are a more likely threat.
Republicans are panning that shift as a unilateral concession to Russia, which viewed the Bush missile plan as a threat.
“The agenda is coming down the pike on national security, and Republicans are going to see an opportunity to regain the mantle,” said Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota who is advising the governor of that state, Tim Pawlenty, on a possible White House bid in 2012.
Dan Senor, a former Bush administration aide in Iraq who now is advising former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another possible 2012 challenger to Obama, described foreign policy as a “debate we want to have.”
Romney has delivered two foreign policy speeches in the last two weeks targeting Obama, including one to evangelical voters in which he called the president’s missile defense policy “dangerous” and accused him of forging ties with America’s enemies at the expense of its friends.
Romney has also penned a new policy book due out next spring with an unsubtle title: “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
Pawlenty, speaking on Fox News on the eve of Thursday’s U.S.-Iran talks in Geneva, said that Tehran was “jerking our chain around.”
And Obama’s 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, told a television interviewer this week that the president’s decision to deliberate further on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan showed “weakness” to the world.
Party strategists concede that the early foreign policy criticisms of Obama carry risks for Republicans. The president could score successes in pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program or on other issues that would neuter the GOP attacks and further erode public confidence in the minority party.
Moreover, while polls show slippage in Obama’s approval ratings on domestic and foreign policy issues alike, those surveys also show that a majority of Americans view the president as a “strong leader,” according to recent data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
“A lot of what the president is trying to do, in fairness, needs a little more time to play itself out, or critics could end up looking quite foolish,” said Mitchell Reiss, a former Bush administration diplomat and foreign policy advisor to Romney in his failed 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
Still, foreign policy issues may offer the GOP a chance to stake out arguments against Obama that could prove appealing to many voters.
“Republicans are going to criticize him, of course, but it’s the quality of the criticism,” Reiss said. “If it’s actually something that seems to make sense to a growing number of people, then that criticism starts to gain traction.”
Obama had drawn support from leading Republicans this year when he decided to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to secure the country for its national elections. He also had impressed some foreign policy conservatives by his early decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a Bush appointee.
But now Obama is convening meetings with senior aides to determine the course of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and whether to grant a request for more troops made by his top military leader in the country. GOP leaders have seized on the delay as a chance to accuse the president of timidity.
McCain, speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, charged that the delay might be the result of “domestic political considerations,” accusing the White House of trying to avoid “alienating the left base” of the Democratic Party.
Republicans say Obama’s broader approach of seeking to rebuild America’s reputation in the world by discussing some of its mistakes on the global stage could turn off some voters, particularly moderates who had backed Obama last year.
If outreach to Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Russia results in no return favors, the public might be ready for a return to a more hard-line approach.
“When an American president journeys abroad, it’s always nice to see him applauded and praised,” Romney told a conservative gathering last month. “But when the price for that adoration is one apology after another for alleged offenses by the United States of America, it’s not worth it.”