Stanford scholars give political edge to Obama when it comes to foreign policy

During a discussion at the Freeman Spogli Institute, foreign policy experts say elections can turn on international issues, debunking the dictum that 'all politics is local.'

L.A. Cicero Moderator Chip Blacker, left, and Professor David Kennedy on the panel

Moderator Chip Blacker, left, and Professor David Kennedy on the panel discussion foreign policy and U.S. presidential elections.

Foreign policy is complex and doesn't translate well on the campaign trail. That's one reason, Stanford scholars say, why candidates stay away from specifics when it comes to explaining to voters their international agenda.

"It's a difficult discussion to conduct," said Michael Armacost, a fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Armacost, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Philippines, said candidates prefer "bumper sticker-style slogans."

"Campaigns very rarely illuminate strategic choices," he said.

Still, external affairs have, on a few occasions, turned elections, notes political scientist David Brady, deputy director of the Hoover Institution.

He said while economic trends do a good job predicting election outcomes, the variable that is most likely to change that result is foreign policy.

He described the 1952 and 1968 elections when the state of the economy was good enough to predict Democratic wins but the Korean and Vietnam wars gave victories to Republicans.

Armacost and Brady spoke about foreign policy's effect on the 2012 elections as part of an event at Stanford that included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy.

Coit D. Blacker, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute and a Russian affairs expert, moderated the discussion, which was live-streamed to Peking University in China, where Stanford opened a research center this spring.

Kennedy, professor emeritus of history, asked the audience whether indeed "all politics is local," as conventional wisdom suggests and the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously declared.

He then went on to recite several examples of elections in which foreign policy issues were salient. Most dealt with elections taking place in times of conflict.

Kennedy examined the correlation between war outcomes and election results. He said avoiding a war or winning a war could go either way in terms of helping a candidate or incumbent. Losing a war, on the other hand, "seems to be pretty consistently bad news."

And, as Brady said, Kennedy noted that winding down somebody else's war tends to have the highest correlation with a positive outcome for the candidate who promised to do that. The scholars cited as an example President Barack Obama's win in 2008, after he had pledged to end the war in Iraq started during the George W. Bush administration.

Armacost, who described being a diplomat during election years, said the contest can change how the incumbent manages affairs.

He said elections provide deadlines for action, a last chance to jettison bad policy or an opportunity to quickly resolve a feel-good issue that is popular among voters.

Each of the scholars agreed that Obama has the edge in this year's election with regard to foreign policy. Obama can tout successes with getting out of Iraq, pledging to wind down war in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden and engaging diplomatically with North Korea.

The trickiest issue for the president may be Iran, Armacost said.

"No sitting president wants another war on his hands," he said.

But, Brady added: "Iran is not on the American public's mind. And that's the best place for the president to keep it."

Brady said Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, could try to make it an issue by saying the president isn't doing enough, but that could backfire. "You could only say that as long as we're not doing anything."

The panel also addressed trade, the U.S. relationship with China and the bloodshed in Syria.

The scholars agreed that Syria presents a dilemma for Romney, not least because his own party is divided on how to handle the conflict.

Kennedy said Americans are tired of war, having had troops fighting continuously for the last decade.

"Any foreign policy position that urges a more forward leaning or more aggressive policy at this moment in time is not likely to be a winner," he said.