Foreign policy is not a top-priority realm in the ’12 campaign, and that suits Barack Obama just fine. With domestic issues dominating the dialogue, he has ample room to maneuver abroad. And Tuesday at the United Nations, he likely reinforced his robust poll advantage over Mitt Romney on the commander-in-chief question.
The president’s speech probably won’t do much to dampen the violent fervor of Middle East extremists. No one speech from any president can dispel half a century of anti-American grievances. And all presidents from this point forward will be captives of social media, forced to react to events beyond their control, much the way Obama had to deal with an international crisis triggered by a YouTube video concocted by a California con who had served jail time for check fraud.
The domestic electorate seems to understand that. And if the latest polls from the swing states of Ohio and Florida are any indication – we’ll check them out momentarily – then it’s likely that most voters will continue to perceive Obama as a credible commander-in-chief. And his U.N. speech will likely do little to disabuse them.
Obama denounced the “crude” and “disgusting” anti-Islam video – but he stressed that America’s First Amendment protects virtually all speech, including the crude and disgusting: “We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities . . . The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” And he contended that Middle East leaders need to rally as well, “to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics.”
It’s hard to see how Romney can get much political traction from any of that. Obama’s U.N. speech doesn’t seem to square with Romney’s claim – uttered in haste in the midst of the embassy crisis – that the president “sympathized” with the extremists. Indeed, the aforementioned swing state polls – sponsored by Quinnipiac University, The New York Times, and CBS News, and released this morning – report that Romney has lost traction on the foreign policy front (on all fronts, actually) since his embassy crisis outburst. Overall, among likely voters, Obama has opened up a nine-point lead in Florida and a 10-point lead in Ohio. If Obama can hold those key states, as now seems increasingly likely, Romney is burnt toast.
But for our purposes today, what matters most is the international realm. Reversing the traditional paradigm, in which a Republican is usually deemed the more credible commander-in-chief, Florida’s likely voters favor Obama over Romney by six points. It’s the same spread in Ohio. Pennsylvania was also surveyed; the spread here is 10 points. And when likely voters in all three states were asked to pick the guy who’s more credible on national security and as a player in the Middle East, Obama’s margins widened in all three states.
What’s most striking is that the critical reaction to Obama’s U.N. speech has been relatively muted. Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor dismissed the speech as “nothing new,” but, by today’s standards, that’s pretty tepid. Senor added, “There is a sense that there’s an unraveling going on abroad, and the president citing these doesn’t mean we’re making progress,” which is a bland way of saying that Obama hasn’t been sufficiently forceful in the Middle East. But the Romney foreign policy team is hardly a font of wisdom on the Middle East, given the fact that most of the teammates are neoconservative alumni of the Bush regime that marched forcefully into Iraq (the wrong war), at a cost of 4,486 American lives and $1 trillion that wasn’t paid for.
With respect to the U.N. address, here’s what the conservative response to Obama has been reduced to: Tom Giovanetti, the president of right-wing Texas think tank, was very upset yesterday about this passage: “I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. And we accept that.” Giovanetti went nuts about the latter sentence; on the Politico website, he wrote, “No we don’t, Mr. President. We do not ‘accept’ that some countries do not tolerate free speech. No we do not accept it.”
But here’s the fun part: Obama never uttered that sentence. He never said “we accept that.” What he actually said was: “I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that.” Big difference between accept and recognize, at least according to my reality-based dictionary. Giovanetti simply attacked the Obama of his imagination. It was Clint Eastwood and the empty chair all over again, an apt metaphor for the anti-Obama mindset with 41 days left on the clock.
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