The president's campaign isn't just hammering home his foreign-policy strength -- it's seeking to undercut his rival's number-one selling point.
Updated 2:19 p.m.
In a new video narrated by Bill Clinton, the Obama campaign implies that Mitt Romney wouldn't have had the guts to take out Osama bin Laden. "That's one thing George Bush said that was right: The president is the decider-in-chief," Clinton says, smiling and pointing at the camera. "Nobody can make that decision for you."
The former president underscores how high the stakes were, how major the risk: "Suppose [the SEALs] would have been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him." Then text onscreen asks, "What would Mitt Romney have done?" and segues to a 2007 Romney quote: "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."
THE MESSAGING WARS
That the Obama campaign is trying to get as much mileage as possible out of the president's most dramatic and universally admired foreign-policy decision isn't too surprising, though there has been some carping that he's overly politicizing it. The Los Angeles Times' Mike Memoli cleverly noted that Vice President Biden -- who once razzed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani by saying, "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and verb and 9/11" -- mentioned bin Laden 12 times in his big foreign-policy speech Thursday.
That was also the complaint of the Romney campaign, which charged the president's team with using the incident as a partisan wedge. "The killing of Osama bin Laden was a momentous day for all Americans and the world, and Governor Romney congratulated the military, our intelligence agencies, and the President," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email. "It's now sad to see the Obama campaign seek to use an event that unified our country to once again divide us, in order to try to distract voters' attention from the failures of his administration."
But note the way the criticism of Romney is couched in the video: as an attack not just on his foreign-policy priorities, but on his decision-making capacity. "He had to decide, and that's what you hire a president to do," Clinton says. "You hire a president to make the calls when no one else can do it."
The idea that Romney's not a "decider" was also a theme of a long passage of Biden's Thursday remarks. Here's what the vice president said about Romney:
He starts with a profound -- a profound -- misunderstanding of the responsibilities of a president and the commander-in-chief.
Here's what he said, and I want to quote him exactly. And I quote: "If we want someone who has a lot of experience in foreign policy, we can simply go to the State Department." He went on to say, and I quote, "But that's not how we choose a president. A president is not a foreign-policy expert."
In my view, the last thing we need is a president who believes that he can subcontract our foreign policy to experts at the State Department, or for that matter, any other department or agency. Because here's how it works -- I've been around for eight presidents of the United States. I hate to admit. I know I don't look that old, right? But eight Presidents. That's not how it works .... No matter how experienced the team, no matter how wise the advice and counsel, to use that old expression, the buck literally stops on the president's desk in the Oval Office.
One of the toughest -- only the toughest decisions land on that desk. And as often as not, his advisers are in disagreement -- disagreements among themselves -- all smart people, but they disagree -- seldom completely unified .... I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president. That's our arrangement. I can give him all the advice that I have and make my case, but I walk out of the room. He sits there by himself, the president sits there by himself and has to make the decision, often -- often -- reconciling conflicting judgments that are made by very smart, honorable, informed, experienced people.
And the president is all alone at that moment. It's his judgment that will determine the destiny of this country. He must make the hard calls. I'd respectfully suggest President Obama has made those hard calls with strength and steadiness. And the reason he has been able to is because he had clear goals and a clear strategy how to achieve those goals. He had a clear vision and has a clear vision for America's place in the world. He seeks all the help he can get from experts as to how to realize that vision, but ultimately he makes the decision.
So it seems to me, Governor Romney's fundamental thinking about the role of the president in foreign policy is fundamentally wrong. That may work -- that may work -- that kind of thinking may work for a CEO. But I assure you, it will not and cannot work for a president and it will not work for a commander-in-chief.
I was struck by the length and emphasis of this passage -- which is abridged here and was even longer in the speech -- departing as it did from a single Romney sound bite. While "a president is not a foreign policy expert" is obviously a clumsy thing to say, and underlines Romney's total lack of experience in world affairs, the idea that a president appoints smart people in key positions whose specialized expertise exceeds his own is a pretty accepted concept. (In fact, Romney made the same point as Biden in the very next sentence of the quotation the vice president cited, a December 2007 Fox News interview: "A president is not a foreign policy expert. A president is a leader who understands how to make difficult decisions and does so in a way that brings together the best voices, that considers the upsides and downsides and predicts the credibility and the strength that America has always projected in circumstances like this.")
The point of Biden's criticism seems to be twofold: First, it reinforces the line of attack on Romney that he's a flip-flopper with no core beliefs to guide his thinking. But it also seems to be an attempt to undercut one of Romney's greatest strengths -- his executive qualifications.
Unlike Obama before he was elected president, Romney has been a chief executive: of a successful business, the Olympic Games, and a state. To many voters, this is his foremost appeal. He's a decision-maker who gets results -- in contrast with Obama, who's often portrayed as overly cautious, dithering, and unable to forcefully drive a focused agenda.
In undermining this qualification of Romney's, the Obama campaign may be seeking to neuter one of the Republican's chief areas of contrast with his rival -- similar to how Republicans questioned John Kerry's Vietnam experience, thought to be his most unimpeachable credential, in 2004. It's a theme of attack you can probably expect to hear more of as the campaign wears on.