Republicans and conservatives are determined to turn an unremarkable off-the-record comment by President Obama into a major campaign issue. Last week Obama was caught on an open mic telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after the November election. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for [incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin] to give me space,” Obama told Medvedev.
Romney pounced. He immediately issued a statement complaining that Obama is going to cave to Russia on missile defense.” Later he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming…. This is without question our number one geopolitical foe.” The Republican National Committee released a statement and video criticizing Obama’s comments to Medvedev as well.
Why is Romney making such a major issue out of such a minor gaffe? The conventional explanation is that he is pivoting towards attacking Obama on foreign policy. Romney is trailing Obama in matchup polls and watching the issue he has made the centerpiece of his campaign—the weak economy—disappearing as employment picks up. So he may be seeking a new campaign strategy. As the Washington Post reported, “Advisers say Romney intends to deliver a major foreign policy address in April or May, depending on the status of the primary contest, and create what one adviser described as a series of ‘platforms’ to highlight the differences between the two candidates…. The political opportunity Romney sees in foreign policy was reflected this week when he seized on Obama’s open-mike conversation with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.”
To Democrats this might seem odd. Obama has ended the unpopular Iraq War, decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership and overseen the killings of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi. To a liberal, if Obama has made any mistakes in the foreign policy realm, they would be ones of excessive rather than insufficient militarism.
But that is not the critique that Romney or any other Republican is making. Rather, they say that Obama shows weakness in negotiations with our adversaries. China, Iran and Venezuela are frequently invoked by Republican foreign policy figures such as John Bolton. Specific actions by Obama to bolster this sentiment can be hard to come by, so his comments to Medvedev provide a perfect opportunity. “Obama will have a good gut-check response with bin Laden, but there will be plenty to work with for a broader critique of the foreign policy of this administration,” says Republican consultant Soren Dayton regarding the political saliency of foreign policy attacks on Obama. “The Russia exchange could end up being a powerful example of how Obama offers concessions to enemies but pressures our allies, like Israel and Canada.”
This is good for stirring up the Republican base, but is unlikely to sway many swing voters. “It is a rare election that is decided on foreign policy,” says Dayton. “In all likelihood, instability in the Middle East will have an impact through things like the price of crude oil and gas at the pump.”
But perhaps the Republican political calculation is not about foreign policy. The average swing voter may not care much about US policy on European missile defense, but they often do care about the president’s character. “[Republicans] are just trying to neutralize the ‘etch-a-sketch’ criticisms that Democrats are lobbing at Romney,” says Darrell West, director of the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “They want voters to see Obama as just another politician to delegitimize him. They’re playing to public cynicism: it’s easy to portray politicians as willing to say anything.”
Leonardo Alcivar, a national Republican political consultant with Hynes Communications, agrees. “Romney was right to criticize the President’s gaffe, for both tactical and strategic reasons,” says Alcivar. “The Romney team well understands the need to position the President as a typical Washington politician whose failed economic policy is compounded by a rudderless foreign policy. The open mike gaffe supports a widely held, and largely correct, view that the President has been campaigning, not leading.”
From Obama’s perspective, trying to improve relations with Russia is leading, or at least governing. Nation contributor and Russia expert Stephen F. Cohen writes that “the United States is farther from a partnership with Russia today than it was more than twenty years ago.” As Cohen explains, partnership with Russia is essential for US objectives such as preventing nuclear proliferation and access to Russia’s vast natural resources. But, as Cohen notes, the Obama administration is “refusing to respond to Moscow’s concessions on Afghanistan and Iran with reciprocal agreements on Russia’s top priorities, NATO expansion and missile defense.” That is the crucial context for Obama’s remarks. Moscow sees us placing missile defense installations near Russia’s border as a provocation.
Election year politicking such as Romney’s can make relations between the United States and Russia even more fraught. As Vice-President Joe Biden pointed out on Sunday, Romney’s characterization of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” is outdated and unhelpful. “He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on [and] Russia is still our major adversary,” said Biden to Bob Schieffer on CBS’ Face the Nation. “I don’t know where he has been." Back in February Cohen predicted that the election could exacerbate tensions with Russia, writing, “recent developments, including presidential campaigns and other political changes under way in both countries, may soon make relations even worse.” Obama was merely stating the truth when speaking to Medvedev. And nothing upsets Republicans like an inconvenient truth.