Obama Caught Dancing in the End Zone: The Commander in Chief on His Victory Lap

Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.

It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.

The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.

In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.

There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.

In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.

Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.

Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.

Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.

However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.

This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.

The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.

With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.

A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.

I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments:

JDB Interview on Sky News’ Boulton & Co Today

With the President of the United States making a sudden and dramatic flight to Afghanistan I was called upon for comment today, first on Pippa Jones’ Magazine programme on ITalkFM and then with Sky News’ Political Editor, Adam Boulton.

I appeared on Boulton & Co along with Hagai M. Segal from NYU to discuss the next steps in America’s on-going conflict with political violence. Enjoy!

JDB and The Global Freedom Report TONIGHT

Following my ongoing work with Sky News, the BBC, LBC and Aljazeera English, I will be making a return to the American airwaves tonight.

At the kind invitation of the producers, I will be  appearing on a radio discussion panel to address the international role of the United States. I will be joined by Prof. John Mathiason of Syracuse University and by Jason Ditz of antiwar.com. The panel will be chaired by Brent Johnson, host of the Global Freedom Report on Friday, August 26 at 22.oo London time.

I anticipate a spirited and fascinating discussion of the issues at hand and the manner in which they are perceived domestically and internationally.

Focus will no doubt be on the implementation of foreign policy by President Obama compared to George W. Bush, the Special Relationship with the UK, actions in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, the degree to which the United States should be engaged in the world and how all of this will impact the forthcoming presidential election.

Click here to access the show live on the internet.

JDB returns to the Airwaves…

I will be returning to the airwaves this evening in my capacity as the Chief North American Correspondent for Talk Radio Europe. Having returned from Capitol Hill this morning I will be analysing President Obama’s Afghan policy and its ramifications both domestically and internationally.

Tune in to hear me discuss thee vial issues with Richie Allen on The Tonight Show at 19.20 UK time, 14:20 EST.

Talk Radio Europe is available on-line at http://www.talkradioeurope.com/assets/mediaplayer.php

JDB and Sky News

As some of you may have seen, I was on Sky News this morning, discussing President Obama’s trip to Europe. The conversation concentrated on his initial stop-over in Eire, where he will apparently revel in his Irish ancestry. I must admit that one doesn’t really look at Obama and immediately think of the Emerald Isle, but I guess that he is just the latest in a long line of president’s claiming Irish ancestry to bolster their domestic standing with the Irish community in the United States.

I seem to remember when Obama used to be from Kenya and Hawaii? Apparently that was soooo yesterday! I know he campaigned on a platform of ‘Change’ but I didn’t think that changing his ancestry was what he had in mind.

In London from Tuesday, Obama will hold meetings at Downing Street with the PM David Cameron to discuss Afghanistan and UK/US foreign policy. Doubtless to say questions of the Special Relationship will come up, along with issues pertaining to the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Obama will be staying as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen and will also address both houses of Parliament. A press briefing is expected at the FCO. The president will be accompanied by Secretary of State Clinton who is expected to hold meetings with her opposite number, William Hague.

Suffice to say, getting around central London may be a little tricky with the heightened security this week!

I will be returning to the airwaves through the week as the president spends his State Visit here in London, so watch this space for more news.

A Sub-Plot on the Sub-Continent

With the midterm elections out of the way, President Obama has travelled to India and Indonesia in his latest effort to show a new face of American leadership in parts of the world that have previously lacked for such attention. Much has been made of his public diplomacy and efforts to dance in particular, but there is far more at stake here than the street credibility of Barack Obama.

Cold, hard, power politics are at the heart of the trip, with the president looking to secure up to 20 individual agreements worth $10bn for American producers, including General Electric and Boeing. At stake here is the president’s domestic standing since such deals could secure up to 54,000 American jobs, vital if the U.S. economy is going to recover in time for the re-election campaign that in many respects is already underway, but which will kick off in earnest in a little over a year’s time in the snows of New Hampshire and Iowa.

The price of generating such business in India is presidential support for a proposed Indian seat on the UN Security Council. This was not quite an announcement of active support for such an eventuality, but will regardless aggravate Pakistan at a time when the U.S. is in desperate need of their support on the AfPak boarder. Similar pronouncements were made regarding Japan and Germany in the 1990s, to no avail. This latest bout of posturing to a host nation, however, is indicative of the degree to which the American president has been reduced to a travelling salesman, promoting U.S. business interests in an effort to improve his own domestic political standing.

In addition to visiting India, Obama has continued his outreach to Muslim nations in Indonesia, his home as a child. Obama’s efforts in the face of repeated ambivalence and perceived reduced American leverage in the world carry great risks, both internationally and domestically. On the world stage, few expect a rapprochement anytime soon as the outreached hand continues to be met with an iron fist. Domestically, efforts to engage with the world’s largest Muslim nations will likely inflame tensions, with a stubborn percentage clinging to the belief that their president is a Muslim and ineligible for office as a foreigner. Such fears were played out in the mid-term elections this month, which saw Obama’s Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives.

Obama’s ability to continue his outreach to foreign lands will be curtailed by this result. Although he can now highlight Republican intransigence, he will also face investigations and hearings into policy and personnel as he prepares to seek re-election. In similar circumstances, previous presidents have sought solace abroad. Obama’s salvation however, can only come from the American electorate. Irrespective of foreign popularity, he must seek to rebuild his credentials as a president for the American people if he stands any hope of becoming a global statesman in a potential second term.

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…