But with President Bush this week likening negotiations with “terrorists and radicals” to Nazi appeasement, foreign policy has clawed its way back into the center of the political conversation, teeing up an issue that Barack Obama and his aides view as a winning one for the campaign.
Consider Obama’s response over the last 36 hours. The campaign hit back before Bush had barely set foot Thursday outside the Israeli Knesset, and then redirected its fire at presumptive Republican nominee John McCain a few hours later. Obama offered another sharp response Friday at a town hall meeting, accusing McCain and Bush of “dishonest, divisive attacks,” and continued the pointed critique afterwards at a press conference.
In what one aide described as a preview to the general election debate on foreign policy, the unrestrained response signaled Obama’s intent to position the Iraq war as a defining issue against McCain, casting aside fears that have long plagued Democrats about being portrayed by Republicans as soft on national security.
At the same time, the aggressive approach enables Obama to chip away at an area where a recent poll suggests McCain has a distinct advantage—prosecuting the war on terrorism. According to a May 8-11 Washington Post/ABC News poll, McCain held a 55 percent to 34 percent lead over Obama on the question of which of the two candidates is more trusted to handle the U.S. campaign on terrorism.
“I don’t know how the politics of this plays out,” Obama told reporters Friday. “But I know what we have done over the last eight years has not worked. … I believe there is no separation between John McCain and George Bush when it comes to our Middle East policy and I think their policy has failed. I will make that case as strongly as I can to the American people. I trust the American people to trust their own eyes and to see what the results have been.”
Voters also got a hint of the Republican response when McCain said Obama’s willingness to engage in direct talks with Iran revealed his “naiveté and inexperience.”
“It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies,” McCain said Friday at the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Ky. “But that is not the world we live in, and until Senator Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment, and determination to keep us safe.”
McCain said Obama “should know better” than to speak with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel a “stinking corpse.”
“It is reckless to suggest that unconditional meetings will advance our interests,” McCain said.
Obama held firm to his position, telling reporters that he would “initiate tough diplomacy with our enemies,” including Syria, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
“I would meet with them without preconditions, although with preparation,” Obama said. “And I would present to them very clearly what my expectations would be in terms of them changing their behavior.”
Obama invoked John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in defending his pledge to negotiate, saying “there is a strong bipartisan tradition of engaging in that kind of diplomacy.”
“So, I mean the American people are gonna look at the evidence and they’re gonna say to themselves, ‘You know, we don’t get the sense that this has been a wise foreign policy or a tough foreign policy or a smart foreign policy,’” Obama said. “This has been policy that often times has been revolved around a lot of bluster and big talk but very little performance, and what the American people want right now is some performance.”
The battle lines are, in some ways, reminiscent of 2004, when Democrat John Kerry argued for a change in course and Bush pressed to continue policies already in place. With a record on Iraq that Republicans cast as contradictory, Kerry never got a clean shot at arguing his case with voters.
Obama aides and allies see a different environment this year. There is little ambiguity on his position because Obama can say he never supported the Iraq war and public sentiment has also shifted so much more starkly against the war.
“The Iraq war was a partisan divide in 2004: Republicans felt it was the right thing to do, Democrats felt the other way and independents were split down the middle, but just enough that Republicans won the White House,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s deputy communications director. This year, “there is consensus among all but the most partisan supporters of the president that this isn’t a war that should have been authorized and never should have been waged.”
By latching onto the Iraq war in the general election, Obama is betting on the same formula of change versus experience that worked for him in the primary against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“There is a Republican playbook that they developed after the 2002 election with the homeland security attacks on Democrats like (former Georgia Sen.) Max Cleland. They used it in 2004 on John Kerry,” Pfeiffer said. “They tried it in 2006 – it didn’t work. The country had moved to a change environment. If 2006 was a change election, then 2008 is a change election on steroids. They are using old tactics in a new environment.”
But one informal McCain adviser, Republican strategist John Brabender, said the Arizona senator will differentiate himself from Bush because he has maintained the “belief and trust factor,” which has been missing with the current administration.
“The question might come down to who do you trust to have a plan and who do you believe can do it?” Brabender said.
On that point, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found voters almost equally divided on which candidate can best handle the war in Iraq, with 45 percent saying McCain and 46 percent saying Obama.
Obama’s eagerness to tie McCain with Bush on the issue was apparent Friday morning in South Dakota. He gave an unusually long appraisal of his political opponent, delivered with gusto before a barn full of voters who had turned out for what was billed as a town hall on rural issues.
"They're trying to scare you and trying to keep you from seeing the truth," Obama told a cheering crowd, "and the reason is they can't win a foreign policy argument on the merits."
Several minutes later, Obama stopped.
“Alright,” he said, “I just wanted to get that off my chest, guys.”