Why Obama Should Talk More About Foreign Policy

His vision is a marked departure from the Bush years and has seen some real success, but it needs to be about more than just winning in 2012.

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President Obama speaks to troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina / AP

If you asked President Barack Obama whether he sees foreign policy as a strength in his reelection bid, judging by his emphasis on the subject in last week's State of the Union Address, Obama might well answer the same way he did to questions about whether he is an appeaser: "Ask Osama bin Laden."

The Obama team's celebration of his role in killing bin Laden is just one in a series of foreign policy sales points, including his efforts to complete the withdrawal from Iraq, to fight a productive drone war on al Qaeda's leadership, to "wind down the war in Afghanistan," and to dispatch Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, that will likely be discussed on the road to November.

While there has been much speculation in the media about whether this foreign policy case will matter much in November -- Tom Ricks says no, Chris Cillizza agrees, David Ignatius says maybe, and Richard Fontaine says they might -- all evidence suggests the Obama team believes it will be an advantage.

Though Obama only talked about foreign policy for six minutes in the last Tuesday's State of the Union (nine percent of the speech, a decrease from previous years), the decision to bookend the speech with foreign policy and military matters set its tone. The speech also made an effective case to voters: In pollster Stan Greenberg's focus group, voters scored Obama highest on the two mentions of bin Laden, "both of which pushed the average dial rating close to 90." And in what could be a significant phenomenon in November, should it hold, "independents consistently rated [the foreign policy] section higher than even Democrats did."

The Republicans will surely challenge Obama's foreign policy message. They are already arguing that Obama does not believe the U.S. is exceptional and that his policies have weakened the nation.

But as I and others have discussed, Obama both acts and sounds like an exceptionalist, and he certainly did so again in his State of the Union. What is true, however, is that Obama's American exceptionalism is different than has been the American norm for the past decade.

The exceptionalism espoused by today's Republican candidates is in line with the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. That White House took the "unipolar moment" to heart. These unipolar exceptionalists believe the nation can and should act unilaterally to pursue its exceptional interests and security. They tend to favor military might, whether its threat or practice, over diplomacy. They do not believe in restraining American power and interests. And they are less interested in the perspectives, experiences, and challenges of other nations unless they agree with America's vision of itself and the world or start to more closely resemble the United States' exceptional democracy.

Obama is what you might call an "indispensable exceptionalist," which is in line with the traditions established by the post-Cold War administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In fact, three years into his presidency, he appears to have adopted a the exceptionalist rhetoric of Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  Obama said on Tuesday, "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs -- and as long as I'm President, I intend to keep it that way." According to a search of presidential papers and campaign documents powered by a web engine of University of California, Santa Barbara, "indispensable nation" is a relatively recent addition to Obama's presidential rhetoric.

To Obama and indispensable exceptionalists, America is the "straw that stirs" the global drink, to lean on New York Yankee legend Reggie Jackson. Jackson suggested that a team full of self-interested players required a talented, charismatic leader to blend their talents and make the team successful. In the same way, Obama and his team believe the United States is unique in its capacity to bring together other nations, set the global agenda, and create change by leading -- from the front or behind. Whether fighting nuclear proliferation, organizing Iran sanctions, or spurring action on Libya, Obama believes, as he told Fareed Zakaria, that he and his team have helped create a "clear belief among other nations that the United States continues to be the one indispensable nation in tackling major international problems."

That interview and the State of the Union are parts of a rhetorical trend. When Obama and his team talk like exceptionalists, they talk about renewing "American leadership." Like much of the administration's foreign policy, this is based on something Obama promised as a candidate. "To renew American leadership in the world," Obama wrote in a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, "we must" end the Iraq war, revitalize the nation's military, confront the spread of nuclear weapons, forge a more effective global response to the terrorism, rebuild alliances, and invest in "common humanity."

His success on that to-do list so far has varied, of course, but nearly all those objectives have been furthered under the Obama administration. So why has Obama's success on foreign policy not done more for his poll numbers? According to a recent Washington Post poll, Obama's approval levels on international affairs and terrorism are actually lower than they were three years ago.

Some of this was the inevitable settling of expectations. And the economic downturn and continued high unemployment surely contribute to Americans' disappointment. So has the crisis-prone international environment: with the Japanese earthquake and meltdown, the Arab spring, the Eurozone economic panic, and continued struggles in Afghanistan, the world looks like an uncontrollable place right now.

Another and perhaps more important reason that Obama's idea of renewed American global leadership is not giving him much of a political advantage is the lack of progress on the last point of Obama's plan. He wrote in that Foreign Affairs article, "ultimately, no foreign policy can succeed unless the American people understand it and feel they have a stake in its success." But it is hard to suggest Americans have such a stake in Obama's efforts to renew America's indispensable leadership.

Obama has made few speeches to the American people to get them to buy into his version of exceptionalism -- the State of the Union was a rare exception and even then less than a tenth of the speech. When Obama does talk about foreign policy, his words say one thing (in marking the Iraq War's end, Obama argued the "greatest challenge that we now face as a nation" is "creating opportunity and jobs in this country") but his decisions (such as Obama's commitment to spending American resources and risking American lives to end the Qaddafi regime in Libya) often say something else. Perhaps those two goals are mutually agreeable, necessary, and obtainable; but the mixed messages in a muted foreign policy discussion can be confusing.It also risks allowing Republicans to fill in the void by claiming that Obama's foreign policy is out of step with mainstream American tradition.

Recently departed White House chief of staff William Daley has argued that if Obama had the same leeway in executing domestic policy as he had on foreign policy, where Obama "can act pretty quickly," the nation would be better off. Even if this is true, the same reasons that Obama can act so freely on foreign policy -- a public more focused on economic matters and Congress's continued forfeiture of foreign policy power -- also mean he gets much less credit and political support from foreign policy successes. Each has felt more like Obama's success alone than national wins because the American people have been given little reason to "feel they have a stake in," as Obama himself put it almost five years ago, these successes.

The Obama foreign policy fits neatly into American tradition.The 2012 campaign provides Obama an opportunity to sell this version of American exceptionalism to the nation.  For much of 2008 his foreign policy worldview was viewed as not-Hillary Clinton, not-Bush, and not-McCain. A full exposition of and pitch for his exceptionalist worldview might help him in the campaign against the Republican nominee, but, more importantly, it could align the American people behind his plans to "renew" American leadership in the world. It can only help.