American Politics: All Campaigning, No Governing

With just a little over a month to go until Election Day, and with the first in a series of Presidential Debates looming, the focus of the American electorate should be upon the issues at stake in the 2012 election. However, instead it finds itself thinking of events 4 years from now and more specifically, on the figure of Hillary Clinton. This week, and not for the first time, former President Bill Clinton has, in his own unique manner, revealed a singular truth about American politics. Either deliberately or otherwise, Clinton has in a stroke raised the spectre of a Hillary Clinton presidency and revealed an intrinsic flaw in the American electoral psyche: The political system is focused on campaigning, not governing.

By admitting that he had no idea whether his wife would seek the presidency in 4 years, Bill Clinton effective fired the starting pistol for the Democratic primary season of 2016, 2 months before the result of the 2012 election has even been announced. This has been exacerbated by a growing sense that this race is over; that Romney has blown whatever chance he had in a series of ill-advised statements, a lack-lustre convention and by failing to run a policy-driven campaign. Currently trailing by anything up to 7% in key, must-win, swing states, his success now rests on matters out of his control.

It has long been the case that a second term American president becomes a lame duck in some respects, almost as soon as he has been returned to office. It is in the nature in politics that power abhors a vacuum, and as soon as one election is over, eyes turn to the next. The knowledge that a second term president is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term inevitable leads to questions being asked in regard to his successor, and accordingly, a diminution of his stature as advisers begin to think of their own futures and initiate a process of seeking to ally themselves with the next potential president.

This could be seen as being the $2 billion problem at the heart of American politics.  It is too focused on campaigning and not on governing. Vast sums are being spent to sway a tiny number of undecided, Independent voters to vote on, or before, November 6. Despite the sums involved, turnout is unlikely to exceed 55%. As politics becomes more and more about gaining power and les and less about holding and using power, the electorate are becoming less and less interested.

This endless process ensures that rather than thinking about what is best for the nation or its citizens, politicians constantly have to focus upon their bid for re-election. This is bad enough in the presidency, but it is endemic within the House of Representatives, with its two-year term in office, which ensures that candidates have to fundraise for re-election from their first hours in post. This is simply no way to run a 21st century superpower. All too often in recent years, the flaws in the 17th century basis of American democracy have been exposed, be it in electoral processes, voting regulations or terms in office. The American Constitution was designed to frustrate, and in this, it is certainly succeeding, but not necessarily in the ways intended.

These inherent problems are compounded by the lack of an obvious incumbent for the Democrats in 2016 (assuming an Obama victory in November). By retaining the services of Vice President Joe Biden, Barack Obama has effectively made him the presumptive candidate in 2016. Is that really what the Democratic Party wants? By Election Day 2016, Biden will be 73 and no more ready to be president than he was in 2008. One of the great successes of this Administration to date has been securing Obama’s safety and thereby keeping Biden from the Oval Office.

Retaining Biden may have been viewed as an act of political loyalty by Obama, but it lacked any strategic vision.  An opportunity existed to bring on board a strong and credible candidate for the presidency in 2016 and give them the all-important incumbency and presumptive nomination status that would go with the position.  Instead, Obama has saddled himself and his party with a Vice President who brings nothing positive to the ticket and actually hurts the party in the lead up to the next election. Rather than being able to coalesce around an incumbent and obvious front runner, the party machine will need to endure another anxious primary season and endless speculation over the potential nominee, a process that Bill Clinton kick started this week.

If the Democrats prevail on November 6, then the Republican posturing will also begin in earnest, with serious questions to be asked as to how they managed to blow an election that was there for the taking. Issues of personality and policy need to be addressed head-on if the party is to return to the White House in 2016. Its best bet for doing so, it would appear is via Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, a young talent who appears to epitomise much of what the American Dream has come to mean in the 21st Century. Oh, and did I mention he was from Florida? One need not still have nightmares about Election 2000 to be aware of this significance. Oh, and did I mention he was from Cuba? With America’s rapidly changing demographic the importance of this should not be underestimated.

After the fireworks of 2008, 2012 has proven to be a rather uneventful election (so far). With the personalities and politics that will doubtless dominate the next four years, it appears likely that 2016 will prove to be far more interesting and dynamic. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it already, which is, of course, exactly the problem in American’s campaign focused political system…

Changing Perspectives in American Politics

For decades there has been an accepted maxim in American politics: when the American people felt secure internationally they voted in a Mummy president who would keep any eye on the store and ensure that domestic issues were addressed. However, when they felt uneasy, insecure or altogether threatened, they would vote for a Daddy candidate who would stand tall on the world stage, face down any adversary and defend the nation, come what may. Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. It has been the Republican Party that has managed to successfully wrap itself in the flag and campaign successfully on national security issues, portraying the Democratic Party as being weak and unreliable on foreign affairs. For much of that time they were also able to portray the Democrats as being financially irresponsible and as being advocates of tax and spend approaches to government.

Events of the past two administrations have altered this perceived reality.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration did much to end the perception of the Democrats as being poor handlers of the economy, as the United States entered the 21st century with a debate over what to do with the almighty surplus that had built up in the government coffers. The administration’s handling of foreign affairs was more mixed, but essentially Bill Clinton bequeathed his successor a nation that was prosperous and at peace.

His successor, of course, was George W. Bush, who continued to invert the perceived wisdom in relation to the role of American political parties. The apparent economic prudence of former Republican administration’s was replaced by a tax cut in time of war, which saw the eradication of the surplus, as the administration sought to have guns and butter. If its economic legacy was poor, its foreign policy was worse, as it deliberately ignored previous Republican strategies that had been successfully implemented as recently as 1991.

The inversion of previous perceptions has continued under President Obama. With his team drawn largely from the former Clinton Administration, this is perhaps to be expected. However, Obama has not been able to replicate Bill Clinton’s economic polices, which saw vast reductions in the US debt. Instead, the debt level has increased substantially, to an eye-watering $16 trillion dollars. The scale of the debt is such that easy remedies appear no longer to be an option. The scale of the debt, coupled with an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above 8% should have spelt doom for the incumbent, but so far it has not.

Unusually, voters are not yet registering their overwhelming disenchantment with the Obama presidency, despite the usual maxim that people vote according to the contents of their purses or wallets; President Reagan’s question remains pertinent today: “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?”

Instead of running on his economic record, or his groundbreaking (however you view it) decision to implement healthcare reform (initiated, like the Bush tax cut, at precisely the time that it was least affordable), President Obama is instead taking the battle to his opponents, casting them as naives with insufficient experience, indifferent to the plight of normal Americans and ill-prepared for high office. Intriguingly, Four years ago, many of the same accusations were made of Senator Obama.

A key area that Obama is exploiting is the difference in terms of experience in foreign policy. Continuing to defy accepted maxims, the president is portraying himself as the steady, experienced Commander in Chief, and his Republican opponents as woefully unprepared for global leadership. The Republicans have done much to aid him in this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan have served in the military, or focused upon military or defence affairs during their careers in government service. Neither has a record of addressing foreign or military affairs in any manner of note. For a Republican ticket this is unheard of. A quick stroll through past tickets confirms that on all occasions either the top or bottom of the ticket had a recognised appreciation of foreign or military affairs that would be brought to bear in the White House. That is not the case in 2012.

Instead, President Obama has been able to portray himself as the man who killed bin Laden. He has successfully managed to avoid being ‘swiftboated’ on this issue so far, despite many efforts, not least of which is the new book ‘No Easy Day.’ His efforts have been aided by Mitt Romney’s recent overseas trip to Europe and Israel, where he at best did little to impress and at worst did much to reinforce a negative image of his candidacy. Developments in recent days have exacerbated this situation. Despite the potential problems that the numerous embassy storming could have posed politically for the president, Mitt Romney’s poor handling of the issue has actually eased the pressure on the administration.

With a little over 7 weeks to go until Election Day, Obama continues to lead in the polls, both nationally and in key swing states. He has noticeably opened up a lead in the key swing states following the convention. This is not over yet, and the debates could be crucial. A key blunder, an indiscretion and this could all turn on a dime. Yet, as this week’s events have demonstrated, when opportunity presents itself, Romney’s reaction has been far from beneficial to the Republican ticket, and he still has all of the heavy lifting to do if he is to have any chance of securing what at this point would looks like an unlikely victory come November.

Women and the Right

Much has been made in recent months of the role of women in American politics. Hardly any of the coverage has been positive, especially in its portrayal of the Republican Party. Several weeks ago, Ann Romney stared from the cover of Time Magazine, representative of everything feminine about the GOP: strong, loyal, attractive, God-fearing and proud. She became this season’s GOP pin-up, but in a way far unlike earlier incarnations such as Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain. But how representative is Ann Romney of American womanhood, or even of Republican women? In short, is she really Mitt Romney’s ‘secret weapon’ or merely another prop to be wheeled out on cue to utter appropriate blandishments in regard to this year’s anointed candidate?

American politics has come a long way in a short period of time. In 1952 Nixon’s ‘Checkers speech’ was attacked as being shameless in its tone and content. It would appear, however, that ‘shameless’ has become the norm in American politics as spouses are now routinely presented to talk up the moral character of the candidate, lest there be any doubts.

Despite suggestions that she has been little more than an adornment for Mitt Romney, Ann Romney has emerged in recent months as a symbol of the Republican Party, desperate to rebut allegations that it is involved in a war on women and as a means to soften her husband’s image: Surely anyone with a wife like this can’t be all bad? This is one lady who it would be easy to dismiss as a cardboard cut-out Republican spouse, but her battle to overcome the debilitating impact of Multiple Sclerosis must give one pause for thought. Her tenacity and drive is all the more remarkable for having to overcome this ailment and to endure the tough life that comes with campaigning for the presidency.

In a debate about a war on women, what better artillery to deploy than a smart, attractive and eloquent woman to refute such allegations and present an image of her husband as seen through the eyes of the one who knows him best? Ann Romney’s elevation during the Republican National Convention is no coincidence and the decision to cancel the first planned day was also no tragedy. Over the weekend, the GOP was casting around in an attempt to re-schedule the presentations once they learned that the major networks were unlikely to carry Monday night’s feed (and Ann Romney’s speech) in full. Cancelling in the name of safety in the eye of the storm, allowed for a truncated convention in which Ann Romney would be guaranteed a prime time speaking slot in which she could attract the attention of the watching world.

Her speech was noticeable devoid of references to policy or politics, but aimed instead at the heart. At times it sounded alarmingly Palin-esque, before Mrs. Romney dovetailed into a history of her relationship with her husband and their early life together, a focus designed to appeal to ‘normal women’ not necessarily married to the son of a governor. As such this was not a speech that one can imagine Hillary Clinton having given. Ann Romey’s contribution to her husband’s life and career appears not to be as a consigliere, but rather as the steel in the spine at times of doubt.  Like Barbara Bush before her, it would appear that Ann Romney is the real power in the relationship, driving her husband’s ambition, actively supporting him in his aspiration to higher and higher political office. She is undoubtedly a great asset to her husband and his campaign. It must be asked, however, as to how much she will appeal beyond the traditional Republican base. What she said last night was unlikely to convince undecided voters that she and her husband are anything other than pleasant, moderate, successful and wealthy Americans who have been blessed with good luck and good fortune. They have made their way in the world and who now stand at the brink of political history, about to either enter a pantheon of greatness or a cupboard of also-rans.

There are clearly contradictions and areas of potential conflict. As a recipient of costly medication to treat her M/S, there are risks that Ann Romney could be drawn inevitably into any on-going debate about healthcare in the United Sates. Likewise, it will be intriguing to see how she addresses the potential for conflict that could emerge from the GOP platform document that opposes abortion but which remains conspicuously silent on issues of rape and incest. Irrespective of Governor Romney’s rejection of such a stance, this will, nevertheless be the platform that he and his fellow Republican candidates will be forced to run on and defend in debates and interviews. Even if Romney himself has declared that his potential White House will not be beholden to such a manifesto commitment, there will be plenty of Republicans who will attempt to hold him to this position, including members of congress. Would a President Romney veto a bill to overturn Roe v Wade presented to him by a Republican congress? This hypothetical situation that could all to easily become a tough reality for Ann Romney’s husband to address as President of the United Sates.

The degree to which Americans vote for a candidate on the basis of their wives is debatable. As John Kerry discovered in 2004, having a wife who was viewed unfavorably by the country can certainly be a burden. Clearly Ann Romney is no Hillary Rodham Clinton and she is certainly no Michelle Obama. What emerges from her biography is a headstrong, determined and intelligent women, dedicated to her family and determined to ensure that her husband achieves all that is possible.

Ann Romney has become the leading lady of the Republican Party this electoral cycle, a move aided by the lack of a woman on the ticket for sure, but a move designed also to draw comparisons and quell discussion of a Republican War on Women. In an election year that has seen Sandra Fluke disparaged as a whore by Republican talk show hosts for her views on access to birth control, and in which the odious topic of rape and women’s biological reaction to it has dominated debate, it is perhaps not surprising that some have suggested that the Republican Party itself is engaged in a war on women. Were the party to declare such a conflict, they would surely lose. For one thing, there are far more women than there are Republicans! Neither is it in the Republican Party’s interest to attack women. Female voters have been vital in securing the White House for Democratic candidates in 1992, 1996 and 2008. If the Republican Party could secure the long-term support of the female vote, it would have a virtual lock on the White House.

Interestingly, the Women for Mitt Romney coalition has recently launched a web site, presenting what it claims to be the priorities of American women. Absent are any references to what could be broadly termed ‘women’s issues.’ Indeed, the web site makes a distinct point that these women are Americans first and women second and the issues that are important to them are issues that should be important to all Americans, irrespective of gender.

In the United States women’s reproductive rights becomes a nation issue on an all too regular basis to the national stage, with vague threats to overturn Roe v Wade, before slinking back to the extreme wing of the Republican Party to wait for another moment to try once more to reduce women’s rights to do what they wish with their own bodies. These attempts to wage Culture Wars repeatedly backfire, as in 1992, and lead only to Democratic Party victories, fuelled by women voters.

The comments made by the Missouri Republican Party candidate for Senate, Todd Akin cast a shadow over the Romney/Ryan ticket. Not because they agree with him, they do not. They, along with members of the Tea Party, have made requests that he stand down. His refusal to do so ensures that he remains an embarrassment, not only to himself, his party but also to his nation. The Romney campaign is also forced to continue to address the statement, which diverts time and attention away from the issues that the campaign is focused on; jobs and the economy.

Women are the great-untapped resource for the Republican Party. American women have been responsible for denying the Republicans the White House on several occasions. They were singularly responsible for keeping Bill Clinton in the White House, despite his repeated indiscretions. However, as a party, the Republicans appear unable to decide how best to court their vote.

For the Republican Party to win in November it needs to consider the gender breakdown in the United States:

  • There are 157 million American women and only 151.8 million men.
  • 46.2% of American women voted in the last elections compared to 45% of men.
  • Only 43% of women voted for John McCain compared to 56% that voted for Obama in 2008.
  • Obama only carried 49% of the male vote in 2008
  • Obama appears tied with Romney for the male vote, but is ahead by up to 20% with women.

When Republicans win the female vote, they win elections, as was the case in the 2010 mid terms. The remarks by Todd Akin this week, therefore, are detrimental on a whole variety of levels. They risk identifying the Republican Party with an anti-female agenda and continuing allegations that the party is engaged in a war on women in 2012. This is exacerbated by reports that the Republican Party platform will oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The inclusion of Paul Ryan on the ticket also raises concerns. As a Catholic, Ryan has voted repeatedly for measures in Congress that have won the support of the National Right to Life Committee Group. There are also strong concerns that the Party Platform that emerges at the Convention will severely restrict access to IVF treatment in the United States.

Akin’s remarks place at risk the potential of winning the Senate seat in Missouri that seemed eminently possible until very recently. With the withdrawal of party support, his chances appear doomed. Failure to win the seat places the Republican national strategy in jeopardy and will impact the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate in November.

Akin’s remarks highlight a singular fact: Until the Republican Party learns to successfully woo the female vote, women will continue to keep the party from power. Ann Romney’s drive and support has brought her husband to the cusp of the presidency, within the margin of error in many opinion polls. The question of whether Mitt has what it takes to go the extra mile for victory and secure the female vote, will be revealed in the remaining days of this campaign…

Mitt Romney’s Previous Bad Trip

In light of this week’s visit to London, Israel and Poland by the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Willard ‘Mitt’ Romney, it is instructive to recall his recent visit to Houston to address the 103rd Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), America’s oldest and largest civil rights organisation.

Considering that he will face America’s first black president, Barack Obama, in the election this November, his decision was an interesting one. The NAACP has a strong tradition of inviting presidential candidates to address their conventions and is officially non-partisan, however, an analysis of the black vote is revealing.

In 2004, only 7% of African Americans considered themselves Republican. In 2008, 95% of the African American vote went to Obama, in contrast to only 4% going to McCain that year and only 11% to President George W. Bush in 2004. That same year (2008) the black vote rose to 13% of the national total, up from 11%, but intriguingly, Obama’s take of the black vote was up only 2% from that received by Bill Clinton in 1996 and virtually tied with Jimmy Carter’s 94% in 1980.

The Republican take of the black vote has its own interesting elements: In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush received 11% of the black vote, considerably higher than the 4% that voted for Bob Dole in 1996 or the 6% that voted for George H. W. Bush in 1992. The 1992 figure was particularly interesting considering the 21% that George H.W. Bush received in 1988 and is perhaps indicative of Bill Clinton’s ability to connect with the African American community. Prior to this, Reagan had received 12% in 1984, and a paltry 3% of the black vote in 1980.

It is possible to discern a pattern, therefore, of overwhelming black support for Democratic candidates and scant support of Republicans.

Romney’s decision to attend was hardly done in the expectation of winning the crowd over and taking the black vote in November, but he could not afford to snub the invitation. Romney faced a tough call in Houston: He could tell the audience what it wanted to hear or he could stick to his message. It has been suggested that he was booed for failing to understand what the audience wanted and for referring to the health care legislation as ObamaCare. In other words, he didn’t pander to his audience.

Irrespective of what one feels about Romney’s politics, there is something to be said about telling an audience something unpalatable rather than merely paying lip service to their desires. Clearly, any Republican seeking to gain the support of the African American community is going to have their work cut out for them. Romney’s task is made all the harder by his opposition to the health care reforms that President Obama has passed and which he plans to repeal. His speech can be viewed in full HERE.

The event has become mired in acrimony.  Romney was booed in places, and cheered in others. He has been accused on MSNBC of attending in the knowledge that he would be poorly received, in the expectation that this would drive ‘racist’ non-black voters into the Romney camp. Such interpretation is clearly incendiary and designed to stoke the passions on both sides. It is certainly far from helpful. Read a transcript of the speech HERE

Romney has also been accused of drafting attendees to the convention to deliberately cheer in key points and to be seen embracing Romney (figuratively, if not literally) after the speech. Romney undoubtedly invited members of the black community to attend this address and it would be more surprising if he had not. The degree to which a small number of invited guests could drown out a hostile crowd, however, is open to speculation. This led to a rather undignified showdown between Bill O’Riley and my old boss Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau Chief on Fox News.

Whatever one makes of Romney’s speech and the reaction to it, he did at least attend. This is more than can be said for America’s first African-American president who elected instead to send his gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden in his place and record a video message for his many supporters at the NAACP.

It is fascinating that this has not garnered a greater response: Romney has been critiqued for attending, for his speech and for potentially manipulating the crowd. But very little has been said in response to Obama’s ‘scheduling conflict’ that prevented him from attending the annual conference of America’s most important civil rights organisation. Had Romney offered such an excuse surely the accusation would be that he was at the very least indifferent to the black community. What the decision of America’s first black president to stay away says about his priorities heading into the November election is open to similar interpretation.

With 99 short days top go until the election, it appears that neither candidate is covering themselves in glory as they barnstorm the planet in desperate search for cash and votes. In the process they demean themselves and the office for which they year. This, alas, has become the accepted way of doing things and nothing, it seems, is about to alter that, whoever wins in November.

The United States: Still the World’s Indispensable Nation?

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy: its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe. Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world. Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution all of its own, as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

The attacks challenged President Bush to reposition America in the world. He would not be content with basking in historically high opinion ratings, or in the warmth of global sympathies. For Bush, September 11 was a clarion call to right the wrongs of the Cold War, to end the tradition of coddling tyrants as long as they sang America’s song. The nation found itself in the aftermath of the attacks of being in a position of great strength and yet also great sympathy, not a usual occurrence. In that moment it had the opportunity to do great things, to indeed herald a Second American Century. By accepting the sympathies of the world and by turning that emotion into positive action that could have bound the nations of the world together against terror, the United States could have demonstrated true benevolence and foresight. However the attacks on New York and Washington produced a wave of sympathy for the United States that the current administration has proved unable to transform into popular support for its policies. By moving into Iraq, the nation squandered its inheritance of compassion. Under Bush, the assertive multilateralism of Clinton was replaced by a determined unilateralism, cloaked by a scant “coalition of the willing.” His moves in Afghanistan appeared to be considered and met with support; his moves into Iraq, long sought by the Project for a New American Century, were less welcomed and proved contentious.

In his speeches and in his comments, President Bush painted a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. By establishing a clash of civilisations, Bush removed the middle ground and in a world of grey, black and white may be bold but will always be viewed as extreme. In this campaign, there is no middle ground, no possibility of disagreement on detail with the US strategy, for such disagreement would be interpreted as a betrayal of “good” ideology. As Bush declared in January 2002, “We need not be focused on one person, because we’re fighting for freedom and civilized civilization.”

The challenge that President Obama has struggled to address is of addressing the future direction of the United States. Successful leaders, whether one agreed or disagreed with their motives or intentions, presented a vision of an American future that the nation could aspire to. Whether that was an embrace of Manifest Destiny or a challenge of a New Frontier, both Republican and Democrat presidents have found a way top show Americans the next step in their national journey. Those presidents that have failed to achieve greatness have often don so due to their unwillingness to offer a vision of a better tomorrow. Thus far President Obama has struggled to define America’s place in the world or a direction that he intends to chart in a second term.

Some have sought to contrast President Obama to Jimmy Carter and it is an interesting, if not completely accurate comparison to make. Both men were honourable, honest and moral individuals who were seen to be remote and often guilty of adopting an air of moral superiority that made them hard to empathise with, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, for example. However, despite similarities, this is not 1980, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, and vitally, Obama has not faced an internal rival as Carter did in the form of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these differences, President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronal Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term. His re-e-lection is far from certain and his campaign could not suffer form the injection of some well-intended optimism. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Perhaps. But so do administrations.

Kill or Capture: The Continuation of Bush Policy

In a new book, Kill or Capture, Daniel Klaidman reveals the distinction between the foreign policy initiatives that Barack Obama campaign on and his record in office. It is significant that such a publication has finally made its way to the mainstream media. Since his election I have been researching the Obama administration and its variance from the Bush years. In 2011 I produced a paper entitled “What’s So Extraordinary about Rendition,” which was published in the International Journal of Human Rights and was subsequently presented in a wider form at an international conference in Europe. My efforts to suggest a pattern of behaviour that extended from Clinton to Bush to Obama caused me to be labelled as a ‘neo-fascist.’ It is apparent that many, especially in Europe, simply do not wish to accept the possibility that Obama has continued Bush era policies.

In this increasingly media-driven age it is widely believed and reported that new administrations bring about new policies and signify a break from the past. Such was the reaction to the election of Barack Obama. The election of the first non-white president of the United States was presented as a form of cathartic ablution; an attempt to dismiss the previous eight years as an aberration and to signify a change from the past. Covered in Nobel garlands and the apparent adulation of the globe, Obama apparently signified a return to ‘traditional American principles,’ upon which the republic was founded: liberty, justice and freedom. It was believed that with his election, had come an apparent end of neo-conservative rule dominated by a policy of pre-emption and the implementation of Extraordinary Rendition.

However, to believe this to be the case is to misread history and to misjudge the United States of America and its political philosophy. Far from being a City on a Hill, the United States has often acted in a manner that appears to undermine its high-minded ideals. From Lincoln to Lyndon and from Wilson to W, what differentiates presidents is their language rather than their actions, their tone rather than their tools. Whether they were domestically focused Democrats or internationally focused Republicans, the inhabitants of the Oval Office have often placed human rights a distant second to the priority of National Interest. It is how this concept has been defined that differentiates administrations, rather than any great concern about the global good.

Far from being radical, the Bush Administration was continuing and expanding upon a policy that had been formalised by Bill Clinton, and adhered to by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, none of which was reported on nor seemingly cared about by the American public. Indeed, rendition, long before it was considered to be extraordinary, was a policy that was devised, developed and initiated by Bush’s Democratic predecessor in a war on terror that was being waged by the United States long before the election of George W. Bush, in a contradiction between the values the United States claimed to be defending and the methods utilised in the process.

Long before everyone’s favourite Toxic Texan was elected, the White House was waging a war on Terrorism. Since the 1800s, the United States has “rendered” criminal suspects from overseas to be tried in the United States, and the U.S. Supreme Court twice endorsed criminal prosecutions after such ‘renditions to justice.’ In 1986 President Reagan authorized a rendition operation to deal with the terrorist suspects who might have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. Government officials acknowledged on the record the “rendition to justice” program that delivered those suspects to U.S. jurisdiction, and afforded detainees the due process crime suspects normally receive in that country.’ The Supreme Court upheld the government’s power to prosecute people who were seized in these abductions and kidnappings irrespective of their legality under international law in the 1992 case of United States v. Alvarez-Machain.

Clearly these practices, of bringing suspects surreptitiously to the United Sates to stand trial, differs by degrees from the policies engaged in post 9/11, but they were the harbinger of things to come, and may still have constituted a violation of international law. Lest anyone think that this is a Republican Rendition policy, it is important to note the evolution of the policy under the Clinton Administration and the emergence of a war on terror long before September 11, 2001. Indeed, an examination of policy and procedures at this time, as well as interviews with leading administration officials, reveals the origins not only of Extraordinary Rendition, but also the Axis of Evil and a focus on bin Laden as Public Enemy Number One. At home as well as abroad, the Clinton administration was fighting a war that would go unnoticed by many until it exploded above the streets of New York in 2001.

In the aftermath of September 11 2001, international terrorism would obtain a new dimension, but in the years prior to the attack the Clinton administration was not lapse in its efforts. Since 1993 more terrorists were arrested and extradited to the United States than during the totality of the previous three administrations.” In addition, covert operations were also being initiated to expel terrorists to nations with less stringent human rights policies than America. In 1996, the administration began a process of persuading allies to arrest terrorists and ship them to a third country without legal process, in an exercise known as rendition. In Albania, U.S. intelligence officers guided authorities to five members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who were flown to Egypt and executed after a military trial. Between 1996 and 2001, CIA Director George Tenet admitted that more than 50 Al Qaeda terrorists had been dealt with in this manner in an effort to “break the organisation brick by brick.”

Long before this practice became public knowledge, the DCI was far from being its sole advocate. Samuel Berger, Clinton’s second term National Security Advisor referred to it as ‘a new art form.’ Before Berger took over at the NSC, the process has been formally established in Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 39, dated June 21, 1995. This document had been prepared not in response to an international outrage, but in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist incident in Oklahoma City. Rendition began as pre-9/11 practice intended to facilitate the judicial process and only after 9/11 became a deliberate effort to evade legal prohibitions against torture.

Egypt looms large in the rendition process, and tales that have emerged from Mubarak’s prisons make awkward reading for those who seek to somehow suggest that rendition only became ‘extraordinary’ once Clinton left the White House. There was a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship at play. As Jane Mayer has noted in the New York Times, “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.” Every suspect the Americans rendered to Egypt had previously been convicted in absentia and attorneys at the CIA cleared all operations. This began with what is considered the first rendition of this era, of Talaat Fouad Qassem, who was picked up by Croatian police in Zagreb in September 1995. The Americans questioned him aboard a ship in the Adriatic, before turning him over to the Egyptian authorities who had sentenced him to death in absentia for his role in the assassination of President Anwar el Sadat.

It is vital to recall that whilst all of this was going on, no one was paying the slightest notice. The American people were busy getting wealthy and the media and Congress were too busy focusing upon the president’s inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The world was generally at peace with itself and with the United States and the president was wildly popular both at home and overseas, something not even his impeachment could alter.  Which is to say that rendition was being conducted by a Democratic president with the tacit agreement of America’s allies against known perpetrators of extreme violence and nothing was reported in the press and the populace was un-concerned.

Both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton authorised kidnapping and forcible abductions to bring fugitives to a country where they would stand trial for the crimes of which they were accused. None of this was criticised at the time yet these renditions were just as illegal under international law as what would come to be known as extraordinary rendition. The policy that emerged under George W. Bush, however, has been damned with some going so far as to equate it with ‘the Nazi operation called Nacht und Nebel or ‘Night and Fog.’’ There was no public or governmental outcry concerning rendition prior to 9/11 so one must question the degree to which the reaction can be seen as part of a concerted effort to attack the specific administration for any reason, as much as it was about the actual policy itself. Put another way, was the public reaction against rendition, or was this reaction a vehicle to further attack an already contentious and in many circles, unpopular administration?

Of course this approach to policy was all meant to end as of noon on January 20, 2009 with the arrival of the Obama Administration. Yet whilst the overriding sentiments of anti-Americanism have clearly subsided, this has had little to do with a change in policy. Obama may well be the world’s president of choice, but Dick Cheney’s view of the world has not been expressly repudiated by Obama. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has denounced the Obama Administration for adopting policies that “mimic the Bush Administration’s abusive approach.” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizner has lamented that Obama “has chosen to continue the Bush administration practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course.”

President Obama may have signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques, but his administration reaffirmed the rendition program, a move deemed to be ‘Extremely disappointing,’ according to the ACLU. There have been more predator drone attacks in Obama’s presidency than under Bush; the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay remains open. It’s change you can believe in, just not the sort that many wanted.

When asked about Rendition at his confirmation hearing, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta noted that suspects would no longer be kidnapped, sent overseas and tortured. However, he added, ‘Renditions where we return an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and then they exercise their right to try that individual and to prosecute him under their laws-I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.’ Clearly the Obama administration has chosen to return to a public stance on rendition that is akin to the previous model exercised by the Clinton White House.

These issues raise serious questions pertaining to the American sense of mission and of exceptionalism. It is hard to ascertain how they do anything but undermine such aspirations. Obama entered the Oval Office with great hopes and aspirations and with the expectation of world opinion. It is hard to see how much of this remain intact on the world stage with so few major alterations from the Bush Strategy, regardless of stated intent. This is not necessarily Obama’s fault. As president, there is, paradoxically, only so much that he can do, but the world expects so much more. There is in addition the two great double standards at work: The double standard to which great nations are always held, of either interfering too much or not often enough; and the contradictory nature of American foreign policy, of oscillating between imperial designs and latent isolationism. Solving these dilemmas will not be rectified anytime soon.

It is an historical fact that a policy of rendition predated and the presidency of George W. Bush and indeed, has continued under his successor. What changed, arguably, was the scope of the operation, not the institution itself. What changed was the public and media response to the policy, which appears to have been a backlash against the administration, as much as it was against the policy itself. The policy, therefore, not only caused offence, but was then used as a vehicle to further justify an anti-Bush mentality. Just as there was a fascination with the President’s sex life in the 1990s, so to, it would appear, was there an obsession with all things Anti-American under George W. Bush. Some referred to this as Anti-Americanism. It is perhaps more appropriate to refer to ‘anti-adminstrationism’. The focus on all things bad under Bush and the apparent capacity to overlook similar occurrences under both Clinton and now Obama, seem to justify this perspective.

Just as Bismarck once noted that the processes involved in the preparation of laws and sausage should remain hidden from public view, so too perhaps, should the policies involved in winning a struggle against those who no longer adhere to classic models of confrontation. With the publication of Kill or Capture, the wider public will have an opportunity to consider for themselves the distance travelled by President Obama from the policies that he campaigned against, yet now appears to have adopted as his own.

Reflecting on Obama’s Gay Marriage Decision

In a recent article, Courting Bubba, I noted that former president Bill Clinton had been accused of racism for questioning the credibility of Obama’s 2008 campaign. This was particularly perplexing and wounding to Clinton whom in office had famously been referred to as America’s First Black President by Toni Morrison. Obviously, Bill Clinton was not an African American, but the point was that he was one of only a few Caucasian politicians who appeared to feel comfortable and capable of empathizing with a non-white audience.

This week Newsweek has referred to the supposedly post-racial Barack Obama as ‘American’s First Gay President.’ They even revealed alternate cover mocks ups in case anyone wondered how they arrived at the cover story. Clearly, Newsweek’s decision has much to do with its ongoing ratings war with Time Magazine and its somewhat more risqué attitude under new editor Tina Brown. The decision to do so has ensured that almost as much time has been spent dissecting Newsweek’s coverage of the story, than it has analysing Obama’s decision to support the idea of gay marriage in the first place.

Indeed the coverage of the announcement is a story all in itself and will doubtless be retold over and over as the media clearly loves nothing more than a tale that it essentially about themselves. Yet the media, its coverage of the story and its apparent usage by the White House remains central to the developing tale of President Obama’s statement endorsing the idea of gay marriage.

Recall that despite attempts to present a serene image of a tolerant, thoughtful president whose position had been evolving on this issue, this was not a planned or carefully thought-out decision. Instead, the President of the United States was playing catch up and being forced to address the situation following yet another gaffe by the vice president, the man even bid Laden did not want to target!

Once the vice president had given his support for gay marriage it was inevitable that the president would be required to go on the record in one form or another. The decision to come out and make an announcement appears to have been made quite literally as the president was heading out of the White House door en route to Albany. There then followed a mad scramble to identify an appropriate vehicle by which to make the announcement, with the White House finally settling on using Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America. The use of Roberts, an African American, was revealing and this must have been factored in when deciding who got the scoop.

With the announcement made, the media have jumped all over it, with ABC congratulating themselves for securing their place in broadcast history. In the week that Time Magazine made headlines for its cover on breastfeeding, Newsweek chose to place its coverage of the Obama story front and centre in what will doubtless be a cover for the ages. Interestingly, just as the White House made a conscious decision in the selection of Robin Roberts, so too did Newsweek in their selection of Andrew Sullivan to write the cover story.

With the media congratulating itself over its coverage of the story, what are the political ramifications? As noted above, this was not a well thought out announcement and whatever one’s views on the morality of the issue, the political timing is dreadful. It has clearly caught the country and Obama’s own party completely flat-footed.

Is there an up side? Well, by all accounts there was a great deal of money riding on this that Obama will presumably now be able to secure from the gay community. It has also (and completely unconnectedly, of course) played well in Hollywood. This combination was expected to generate anything up to $12 million in campaign funds in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

It will be argued that this places Obama on ‘the right side of history,’ that gay marriage is an inevitability and that Obama is right to endorse it now, lest he get left behind on the issue and be forced to play an even bigger game of catch up later. Maybe. It will help with some elements of the Democratic base that view this as a matter of civil rights.

So…. the gay community, Hollywood and the Democratic base are pacified by this.

But where else were they going to go? Would they have ever voted for Mitt Romney? Which forces us to consider the downside to the announcement….

At present, polling indicates that this is a closer race than many (myself included) would have predicted. With the power of the incumbency, a divisive Republican primary season and millions of dollars in his campaign war chest, the expectation was that Obama would be far ahead in the polls.

That he is not is encouraging to Mitt Romney and problematic for the president, who must be wondering where he is going to garner the magical 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure a second term in the White House. At a time of economic hardship, international turmoil and in the midst of an election cycle, the president’s announcement carries great political risk, with questions raised as to the necessity to address this issue now. Is it a national priority? Is it an issue that the president intends to campaign on? Is it an issue the president is prepared to lose an election over?

Vitally the White House is not proposing to legislate on the issue. The president maintains that this is a state issue and that the federal government will not become involved. He has, however, firmly pined his colours to the mast and will be praised and criticised in equal measure for doing so. His choice will doubtless please his base and appal his opponents. What will be of interest is which side it motivates most to get out and vote in November.

Mitt Romney has come out in opposition to the president’s announcement, which should surprise no one in particular. This alone should appease those who lament a lack of distinction between opposing candidates in an election.

However, elections may be based on issues, but they are won with numbers and right now the president’s numbers on this issue do not look good. Many states can be discounted in a presidential election. There will be those states that will inherently vote Democrat (New York, Massachusetts, etc) and those that inherently vote Republican (Indianapolis, North Dakota etc). However, it is in the all important swing states that the race will be decided; states that cannot be relied upon and where the difference between defeat and victory could be as little as a few hundred thousand votes. It is these votes that will decide the coming election and they do not appear to be in favour of the president’s stance on gay marriage. Seven of these states have provisions of one kind or another that restrict or ban gay marriage. Vitally, the majority of these were not enforced by mean spirited legislators, but were instead passed through ballot measures, which is a major problem for the president.

Same sex marriage is outlawed in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado and there are restrictions in Wisconsin and Nevada. Elsewhere in the Union, over 30 states have legislated against gay marriage. Planning a route to victory for Obama that does not include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida becomes a mathematical challenge. In addition, Democrats are preparing to descend on Charlotte, North Carolina this summer for their nominating convention, the state that acted last week to ban gay marriage. This decision has led to calls to move the convention and to an online petition to boycott the state. As noted above, however, if Democrats are forced to gather only in states that have not passed similar legislation then they must avoid Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

Polls released in the aftermath of the president’s announcement indicate that Americans recognise that politics as usual is at play here. This brings the issue around full circle in regard to the lack of planning that was put into this announcement. For an administration to gain public support on a contentious, history making issue, it is necessary to build up a head of steam and to prepare the public for a shift in policy so that when it comes the voters have been prepared to receive it. This did not happen in this case.

The subject does not dominate national debate but has the potential to damage Obama in marginal constituencies. 67% of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll believed that the announcement was made “mostly for political reasons.” “38 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 24 percent favor civil unions short of formal marriage. Thirty-three percent oppose any form of legal recognition. When civil unions are eliminated as an option, opposition to same-sex marriage rises to 51 percent, compared with 42 percent support.”

At a time when the economy appears to be improving Obama has not aided his electoral chances with this announcement. The economy remains the number one issue for voters but the NYT/CBS poll indicates the decision could cause 26% of voters to be less inclined to vote for Obama.

It’s still the economy stupid, but Obama may have been advised to wait until he was safely re-elected before addressing this issue, which threatens to undermine his carefully constructed re-election plans.

The Ghost of Presidents Past: Bill Clinton and the 2012 Presidential Election

Having been duly chastised for speaking his mind four years ago, Bill Clinton is now being utilised by President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Clinton is appearing in campaign commercials, lauding Obama’s prowess as Commander in Chief and hailing his ability to finish the job that Clinton himself had started in the late 1990s, the killing of Bin Laden.

In 2008 he was the staunchest supporter of Barack Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton. The former president was roundly and ridiculously attacked for suggesting that Obama’s candidacy was a joke and for expressing the opinion that Obama’s much vaunted opposition to the Iraq War was a fairy tale. In the process he learnt a lesson that has become apparent in Europe: “Thou Shalt Not Speak bad of Obama for fear of being misconstrued…”

It appears that in politics, if you wait long enough, you see everything and that the troubling details of reality are forgotten, with only myth surviving. In the 1992 presidential campaign both the Democrat and Republican candidates made reference to Harry Truman and attempted to cast themselves as his political standard bearer, albeit for differing reasons. In addition, wave after wave of politicians from all walks of life have attempted to benefit from the legacy of the Kennedy bothers. This election season the ghost of presidents past appears to be Bill Clinton.

Of course the link between Obama and Clinton is an interesting one. Recall that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in 2008, only to see her one shot at the presidency usurped by Barack Obama, whose career she has sought to nurture in its early stages. The Clinton’s combined sense of unease at this is understandable and forms the basis for most of the Game Change book, as opposed to the HBO movie, that chose to ignore the Democratic infighting. Equally infuriating to the Clinton’s was the way in which their supporters chose to jump ship to Obama’s banner long before it became apparent that he was guaranteed victory. No defection was more symbolic than that of the Kennedys, whom Bill had courted assiduously during his time in office. Ultimately, Hillary and many former Clinton era officials wound up working for Obama in the White House, in a move that should put pay to the debate to the actor/agency debate in international relations theory.

However, Bill Clinton is also being touted by the presumptive Republican Mitt Romney, who is contrasting Clinton’s New Democrat approach with the seemingly Old Democrat mentality of Barack Obama. Speaking in Lansing, Michigan, Romney said of the contrast between Clinton and Obama:

“President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn’t work then, they haven’t worked over the last four years, and they won’t work in the future. New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results.

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38% of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50%.”

President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.”

This is the same Bill Clinton that was impeached by the Republican controlled Congress; the same Bill Clinton who couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for his first budget and the same Bill Clinton who failed to receive over 50% of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. Now, apparently, he is Mitt Romney’s poster boy for sensible government!

All things considered, one can see why Romney would contrast Clinton’s time in office with Obama’s. Consider the economic record of the United States during Clinton’s tenure and the fact that by the 2000 election, the debate was about what to do with the budget surplus! It really is remarkable that Obama has not sought to make more use of Clinton during his first term in his efforts to get the economy back on track.

Of course, Bill Clinton is the ex-president who never really went away. An adroit campaigner, Clinton has never strayed from the limelight and appears incapable of yielding the floor to a new generation of politicians and to be honest, why should he? Over ten years after leaving office, Clinton still remains the Democrat’s most potent campaigner in chief. Clinton’s abilities were often overlooked, or dismissed as being evidence of a Slick Willy mentality, but he was and remains a political mastermind, capable of guile and cunning and a far more able politician than the current occupant of the White House.

Much is made of Obama’s rhetorical capacity, but his stumbling syntax when faced by a malfunctioning TelePrompTer reveals a different story. Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994 when he was forced to ad-lib for 20 minutes due to the wrong speech having been loaded into the TelePrompTer.

The irony in all of this is incredible. In 20912 both Republican and Democratic candidates are utilising Bill Clinton in a positive light on their campaigns. In 2000 Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, refused to adequately utilise Clinton or even his own record in office and ended up loosing the election by a couple of hanging chads in Florida.

It will be interesting to see how Romney’s remarks play out in Republican political circles. It is likely that they will reinforce the widely held view of Romney as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that despite Rick Santorum’s middle of the night ‘endorsement’ he remains the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” in 2012.

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: