Obama in Afghanistan: How This Looks Through the Reelection Lens

By James Fallows

I unavoidably missed the Obama speech from Afghanistan this evening. To catch up I naturally turn to our Steve Clemons for the foreign-policy summary -- and to Samuel Popkin for what the moment shows about the evolving pattern of a re-election run.

In a first installment earlier today, Popkin stressed the under-appreciated fact that an incumbent president always runs for re-election with a different emphasis, strength, and public persona from the ones that carried him to victory four years earlier. If you think the Osama-killing, drone-strike-ordering, bank-rescuing, compromise-accepting Barack Obama of 2012 is different from the "Change We Can Believe In" / dreamy Hope-poster figure of 2008, you're right: that's how it always is, according to Popkin. Just now Popkin writes in to say that the speech this evening, and the likely response from Mitt Romney over the next few days, underscore the point:

Obama's two visits to Afghanistan nicely illustrate the difference  between a challenger and an incumbent. 

The highlight of Senator Obama's 2008 visit to Afghanistan was the three-point shot he hit and the high fives he got from the troops.  Now, President Obama will sign a treaty, and note the anniversary of the shot heard round the world that took out Bin Laden.
 
Today he is the commander in chief and a statesman.  Today, Mitt is a very successful businessman and a former governor who disowned the healthcare plan that was once his crowning achievement.

This is the kind of move that cuts off some lines of attack for Romney.   Note that there were two references [in Obama's speech, which I have not yet heard -- JF] to strengthening democratic institutions and no mention of democracy or liberty.   And a very clear emphasis, like an NPR pledge week. on matching grants: "as you stand up you will not stand alone."  I took that to imply if you don't stand up you will be on your own.
I thought that the three-point shot from the 2008 campaign, at a base in Kuwait en route to Afghanistan, was actually quite significant, symbolically. Of course it didn't "mean" anything, but it is the kind of thing that goes right, when things are generally going right for a campaign, and that goes wrong when a campaign is star-crossed. (Star-crossed example: Gerald Ford, former national college all-star football player, stumbling down the steps to Air Force One before his unsuccessful re-election campaign.) To align this with Popkin's model, I should say that the three-point shot was an advantageous moment for a "challenger." A sober incumbent probably wouldn't expose himself to that kind of test.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/obama-in-afghanistan-how-this-looks-through-the-reelection-lens/256619/