It feels like a million years ago today, but Democrats swept to electoral victory in 2006 and 2008 largely as part of a backlash to the miserable foreign policy failures stemming from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And relative to that context, President Obama's record in office has been good and avails itself of an obvious defense — yes, the Middle East is still a messed-up place, but American soldiers are no longer dying there by the dozen. Meanwhile, America's relationship with the rest of the world is vastly improved, global cooperation on climate and nuclear proliferation is delivering tangible results, and — oh yeah — Osama bin Laden is dead and America has been safe from terrorist attacks.
Against a Republican field that seems stuck in the Rumsfeld era, it should be a winning argument, but judging by Saturday night's debate Democrats seem ready to blow it. Rather than sell the full range of Obama-era achievements, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, and, most importantly, Hillary Clinton got bogged down parrying with the (excellent) moderators over the toughest elements of Obama's record in office rather than turning to the good stuff.
But there's more to the world than ISIS and the Arab Spring, and a great deal of the point of Obama's foreign policy has been to prevent chaos in the Middle East from soaking up all the bandwidth of American foreign policy. To win, Democrats need to learn to contextualize problems and talk about successes.
Obama's excellent record on national security
Consider, for example, the crowd-pleasing high points of Obama on national security. Unlike George W. Bush he really has "kept us safe" and avoided any terrorist attacks on the US homeland. And while Bush let bin Laden get away in Afghanistan in order to free up resources to launch a pointless and unsuccessful invasion of Iraq, Obama found bin Laden and had special forces kill him. You'd think this would be something Democrats would want to mention as frequently and as quickly as possible in a discussion of counterterrorism.
But on Saturday, Democrats went through extended discussions of ISIS, "radical Islam," and everything under the sun without mentioning it. Osama finally came up once, briefly, near the end in the context of a personal question addressed to Clinton:
John Dickerson: Begin the final segment of this debate with something none of you saw coming. Something quite unexpected. Soon after your inauguration, you will face a crisis. All presidents do. What crisis have you experienced in your life that suggests you've been tested and can face that inevitable challenge? Secretary Clinton, you first.
Hillary Clinton: Well, there are so many. I don't know where to start. (LAUGHTER) I guess the one I would pick is the fact that I was part of a very small group that had to advice the president about whether or not to go after bin Laden. I spent a lot of time in the situation room — as secretary of State and there were many very difficult — choices presented to us.
But probably that was the most challenging. Because there was no certainty attached to it. The intelligence was by no means absolute. We had all kinds of questions that we discussed. And, you know, at the end I recommended to the president that we take the chance to do what we could to find out whether that was bin Laden and to finally bring him to justice.
This is not much of a brag. But at least it got a token mention.
Here are some other things that nobody brought up:
- A broad multilateral agreement to disarm Iran's nuclear program
- The New Start arms control treaty with Russia
- The historic diplomatic opening to Cuba
- New Pacific military basing agreements with Australia and the Philippines
- Bilateral agreements on climate change with China and India
- An increase in positive perceptions of the United States in almost every region of the world
The Middle East has been a mess for a long time
This good stuff does not, of course, undo the problems in the Middle East. But then again, the Middle East was a violent and chaotic place when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were in office. Obama has not managed to solve the problems of the region, but he has defended America's core interests — including, crucially, the absence of terrorist attacks at home — without incurring the thousands of American military casualties than we saw under his predecessor.
It is, all things considered, a pretty good record.
But it's bound to look terrible if — as happened Saturday night — Democrats are reluctant to talk about it except under duress. Journalists (and Republicans) like to pick at the scabs and weak spots of a politician's record. Competent politicians learn to talk about successes and broader context. The Obama economic record isn't perfect, either, but Democrats are more than happy to defend it as broadly successful and superior to the alternatives. The lesson we learned Saturday is that the party, including the woman who served as secretary of state for half his administration, isn't yet ready to do that on national security.