David R. Henderson  

Why Obama Will Be Re-Elected

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An article yesterday by Conor Friedersdorf, "The GOP Wasted 4 Years on the Wrong Critique of Obama's Foreign Policy" plus my own observations of Mitt Romney and his apparent strategy now convince me that Barack Obama will be re-elected.

Why do I think Obama will win? Because, as Ron Paul has pointed out many times and as my friends, the late Roy Childs (here from about 4:00 to 7:00) and Murray Rothbard often pointed out, Americans tend to vote for the peace candidate. Barack Obama as the peace candidate? That's ridiculous. Yes, it is. He tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan and has stepped up the drone attacks on people in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. So why do I call him the peace candidate? It's relative. To Romney. Romney seems to want to stir things up with the Russian government and seems to want a bigger U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Many of his foreign policy advisers are George W. Bush neo-con retreads. So, yes, by contrast with Romney, ridiculous as it sounds, Obama is the more peace-oriented candidate.

Romney's one chance was to stick to economics. Though, even on economics, he hasn't sounded convincing, he's running against a guy with a huge deficit, a growing debt, the unemployment rate above 8 percent, huge government spending, a weak recovery, and a regulatory bureaucracy that's out of control. It should be easy to win. Even if your own economic proposals aren't very good, it should be easy to win.

Some Republican friends compare this election to the 1980 election where Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter and Carter's record on the economy was dismal. Not a bad comparison. So let's finish the comparison. As Roy Childs pointed out in the segment I highlighted above, in September and early October of 1980, Carter started to score points against what looked like a very hawkish foreign policy stance by Reagan and pretty much tied Reagan after Reagan had come off the Republican convention in Detroit with a double-digit lead over Carter. (Roy remembered it as 40 points; I'm skeptical.) Reagan seemed to moderate and, of course, came through with a convincing margin of victory. But, Mitt Romney, I knew Ronald Reagan and you're no Ronald Reagan. Many people have commented on Romney's tin ear and my impression is that it's true. And one problem with having a tin ear is that you can't hear it when people say you have a tin ear. Romney seemed to like what Clint Eastwood said in his speech at the Republican Convention. Did Romney hear what Clint said about Afghanistan? I reported it at the time and emphasized it. He said:

But you [talking to an imaginary Obama] thought the war in Afghanistan was OK. You know, I mean--you thought that was something worth doing. We didn't check with the Russians to see how did it--they did there for 10 years.

As I wrote, "Clint Eastwood is no dummy. He knows, as well as he knows what three words follow 'Go ahead,' who started the war in Afghanistan." Moreover, Clint's next words were:
You [imaginary Obama] gave that target date [for getting out of Afghanistan], and I think Mr. Romney asked the only sensible question, you know, he says, ``Why are you giving the date out now? Why don't you just bring them home tomorrow morning?''

If Romney were to advocate getting out of Afghanistan--and Iraq, and Germany, and Japan, and Korea, and, and, and--tomorrow, and if people believed him, he would win by a landslide. But he won't and he won't.



COMMENTS (32 to date)
Greg G writes:

Excellent points David. Obama's Afghanistan policy is just prolonging an ugly exit and the international norms he is setting for drone use will come back to bite us someday. He would have been vulnerable on these issues.

Instead, Romney wants to attack Iran, needlessly antagonize Muslims, increase baseline military spending, give the generals everything they want in Afghanistan, double Guantanamo and bring back all the neo-con foreign policy advisors.

Nothing makes government bigger faster than going to war.

Ted Levy writes:

It is clear the establishment Right would rather lose than reassess...

MikeDC writes:

OK, I've read this post twice, and I've read the articles it links to, and it seems uncharacteristically sloppy, inaccurate and poorly argued.

1. Nowhere do I find a meaningful explanation or link to an explanation that shows why Governor Romney would be the "war candidate". There's no quotes from Romney or even outlines of his statements or thinking in any real detail. Nothing at all but vague assertions and implications.

2. The article that David links to calling the Romney advisors "neo-con retreads", in fact, doesn't call any of the advisors neo-cons. In fact, it says of his closest and most well-known advisors:

Zoellick: "He is a generally regarded as a relative moderate on foreign affairs, a pragmatism, at the other end of the spectrum in the Republican party from the neocons."

Williamson: "He is a state department veteran who served in the Reagan administration and during the George W Bush administration opted to concentrate on the Darfur crisis in Sudan rather than become bogged down in the Iraq war. One of his jobs is to co-ordinate the divergent views coming from Romney's 40-plus pool of foreign policy advisers."

Kagan: "One of the best-known thinkers in US foreign policy and a heavyweight adviser to Romney. He was a foreign policy adviser to John McCain in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He is co-founder of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century. In spite of that, he is not generally regarded as a neo-con but a realist. His latest book, The World America Made, was praised by Barack Obama."

Friedberg: "Professor of politics and international relations at Princeton. Another realist has focused recently mainly on the rise of China and argues that the Obama administration should be preparing for a potential conflict. In spite of that, he does not believe such a conflict is inevitable."

3. I don't understand why David is asserting that immediately withdrawing from war and the Middle East would be a winning strategy while posting links to public opinion research suggesting that majorities of voters support the policy of continued war offered by President Obama.

Mike W writes:

Typical academic response...give up. That's why academics don't create new companies. They really don't get battling through the obstacle.

ajv writes:

Obama will be re-elected due to frequent gaffes abroad on Romney’s part in regards to both his own opinions and his dealings with foreign dignitaries. Mitt Romney has shown increasing levels of ignorance as he has been in the spotlight with his most recent comments about windows on airplanes not opening being a real problem putting him in the spotlight for sheer ignorance. He has also shown that he is not in tune with American people when he blatantly ignored the subject of troops in Afghanistan during his speech at the Republican National Convention. In regards to interaction with other countries even as a presidential candidate he has made a poor impression in the Middle East due to offensive remarks against Palestinian culture in comparison to Israel. On the home front he is trying as a businessman to press a perceived advantage in economics over President Obama. Mitt Romney’s failure to release the standard ten years’ worth of tax returns as well as his personal wealth and business policies further alienate the American people and makes it hard for low and middle income families to relate to him as a candidate. If Mitt Romney even hopes to stand a chance in the general election he will have to promote a robust and well thought out economic plan that he can get the American people to support, he must also work to repair the damage his overseas trips have done to credibility as a candidate.

skb writes:

@ajv

Romney's comments about roll-down windows on airplanes was an obvious attempt at humor, not a serious wish. Everone who heard the speech understood that the remark was a joke. Some media sources jumped on the remark as a gaffe anyway. It was either sloppy or insidious on their part.

Romney may not win, but let's at least get this story straight.

Greg G writes:

Yes, it's true the non-stop gaffe's have hurt Romney. Yes, it's true this isn't about airplane windows. I think that David's point is that the same gaffe's would have done a lot less damage if Romney's basic foreign policy positions were better.

There is still the fact that Romney wants a much bigger military and a much more aggressive foreign policy than Obama. That perception is caused by reality, not gaffes.

Andrew writes:

One more thing. Iraq, Afghanistan, War on Terror are still considered Bush's wars. It's easier to be the "peace president" when people think you are simply trying to end what the other guy left you.

MikeDC writes:

When Obama visits all 57 states , speaks fluent Austrian, disclaims our official allies and their leaders and no longer encourages showy midnight questioning a of film-makers engaging in 1st amendment protected speech, I'll consider Romney to have committed serious gaffes.

I still don't see anyone engaging in any critical thinking or making supported statements in this thread. I do see that Greg G said Romney wants a bigger military but also a "more aggressive" foreign policy.

The only statement I've heard from Romney in that regard though, in his acceptance speech, called for the former but not the latter. Rather, he called for a stronger military on the grounds it would make it less likely that we'd actually have to use military force.

That's a call for a less aggressive foreign policy, not more aggressive. And one that's generally supported by lots of economic and game theoretic study.

MikeDC writes:

When Obama visits all 57 states , speaks fluent Austrian, disclaims our official allies and their leaders and no longer encourages showy midnight questioning a of film-makers engaging in 1st amendment protected speech, I'll consider Romney to have committed serious gaffes.

I still don't see anyone engaging in any critical thinking or making supported statements in this thread. I do see that Greg G said Romney wants a bigger military but also a "more aggressive" foreign policy.

The only statement I've heard from Romney in that regard though, in his acceptance speech, called for the former but not the latter. Rather, he called for a stronger military on the grounds it would make it less likely that we'd actually have to use military force.

That's a call for a less aggressive foreign policy, not more aggressive. And one that's generally supported by lots of economic and game theoretic study.

Chris H writes:

MikeDC, I think the article didn't bother posting too much about Romney being the war candidate because it's a perception the majority of Americans have. And why shouldn't they have that given Romney's own rhetoric? Let's take a look at his website: http://www.mittromney.com/collection/foreign-policy

"The unifying thread of his national security strategy is American strength."

Well that's not a hopeful start. Let's see his more particular policies.

"This past June, President Obama disregarded the counsel of his top military commanders, including General David Petraeus, and announced a full withdrawal of those 30,000 surge troops by September 2012. That date falls short of the commanders’ reported recommendation that the troops remain through the end of 2012 and the Afghan “fighting season” to solidify our gains."

Criticizing pulling troops OUT of Afghanistan. Seems pretty hawkish to me. Then his plan.

"Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."

So we remove troops when...? Maybe, someday, if the stars are right?

But what about Iran? Surely if Mitt's not the war candidate we'll be able to see that there!

"U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with an understanding on Iran’s part that a military option to deal with their nuclear program remains on the table. This message should not only be delivered through words, but through actions. The United States should restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously."

Alright, so not only are we not ruling out war with Iran, we're deploying military forces to the region. Because I'm sure sending in aircraft carriers just reflects Mitt's desire to defuse tensions.

OK, but surely Mitt's happy we're officially out of Iraq (whatever the real case may be)! I mean the majority of Americans wanted out of Iraq and...

"President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq and his decision to pull out all U.S. troops by the end of 2011 have unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women."

*Sigh* Is there any country Mitt doesn't think our troops should be in?

Well he does talk about avoiding military conflict with China! There's something right? How does he plan to do that?

"Toward that end, the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific. We should be assisting partners that require help to enhance their defensive capabilities. The Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-the-line equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms."

So Mitt's plan for peace in Asia is to expand the US military presence and sell weapons to China's potential adversaries. Mitt's idea of promoting peace is "point more guns at people!" Because arms races have never spiraled out of control.

But maybe Latin America...who am I kidding he wants to expand the US military presence there too!

"However, in light of the severity of the cartel problem and the sheer firepower and sophistication of the criminal networks we are facing, the United States and Mexico should explore the need for enhanced military-to-military training cooperation and intelligence sharing similar to practices that were successful in combating cartels and narco-terrorist networks in Colombia."

Military forces to help enforce the drug war in Mexico just like Colombia. Great.

None of this excuses Obama from his military posturing, but maybe Mitt Romney is seen as the war candidate because he WANTS to be seen as the war candidate. Obama at least pretends he has other tools than a military he can use to beat people over the head with. Mitt Romney's foreign policy isn't helping his cause and seeing him do a 180 and go Ron Paul on us seems more than a little unlikely.

Greg G writes:

@MikeDC

It is quite true that there is a lack of policy specifics that we have "heard from Romney." One specific that we have heard is that he is outraged that Obama has not been more supportive of the current Israeli government which is seeking our support in attacking Iran.

That has been the specific that he has chosen to emphasize the most. He has also criticized Obama for being willing to announce a specific date for leaving Afghanistan.

pyroseed13 writes:

I don't think foreign policy matters to most voters honestly, and to the extent that they care they tend to favor interventionism as MikeDC noted. Moreover, is proposing withdrawal from the Middle East really a winning strategy following the embassy attacks? Any so-called "peace" candidate is likely to be perceived as dumb and naive.

Mercer writes:

"If Romney were to advocate getting out of Afghanistan--and Iraq, and Germany, and Japan, and Korea, and, and, and--tomorrow, and if people believed him, he would win by a landslide."

This is what Paul ran on and he lost every GOP primary. Romney ran as a neocon because that is what most GOP voters want.

I voted for Paul because I support a less interventionist policy but I recognize that my views are not the same as most GOP voters. Romney does not have a tin ear. He saying what most GOP voters want to hear. I think it is a minor factor hurting him with the general electorate because most non GOP voters don't want more Asian wars but having talked liked a neocon to win the nomination he can't easily turn dovish now.

BZ writes:

Mercer is right -- Gary Johnson is running on peace, and his unfavorables still beat his favorable ratings (ignoring the majority who has no clue who he is).

MikeDC writes:

@Greg G

I don't interpret either of those specifics as favoring military action nor do I think he's unambiguously more "warlike" than Obama's policies. Rather, both cases relate to the feeling that Obama is sending the wrong signals to our friends and enemies around the world.

Foreign policy is largely seems like a signaling game to me. Sometimes conflicts might be unavoidable, but history shows that lots of conflicts arise from misunderstanding the signals both our friends and enemies send. In that vein, once you've reached the stage of armed conflict, you've already lost.

Put simply, it's wise to tell an enemy you'll hit them back with overwhelming force if they attack. If an enemy questions your will to fight, it's wise to give every appearance that you'll fight and fight forever, even if you don't want to.

With respect to friends, giving them ambiguous signals of support is also dangerous. If your friend starts a fight, do you have his back? Will he start the fight if you say you don't? Will the enemy start a fight with your friend if he thinks you'll jump in? How about if he thinks you'll sit it out and let the friend go it alone?

All of this is pretty common sense stuff from both an every day perspective and a foreign policy perspective. And to my mind, Romney's specific criticisms are pretty valid. We very well might avoid (more) war by signaling our endless resolve to our enemies and communicating our exact intentions to our friends, regardless of what we actually intend.

--------------

Not to drag this on forever, but my true belief is that we're much more at risk for further and indefinite war under Obama than under Romney.

1. I largely agree with Romney that the mixed signals sent by the current administration encourages our enemies to take their shots at us. But the reality is that the current administration has done nothing to make me think it wouldn't go off and bomb Iran or anyone else (Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Iraq Pakistan, and so forth) if push comes to shove.

2. We already have an administration that's been loose on the trigger and the default future I predict is that we will have more war in the future. It's quite plausible to imagine the President following through on his statement that Iran having nukes is unacceptable to the US by bombing them. He's said as much in pretty clear language (for him) as recently as... yesterday. It's quite plausible to imagine the US becoming militarily involved in Syria and clearly we will continue our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, etc under Obama.

3. In large part, recent history and political reality strongly suggest that Democratic presidents can and will unleash the military much more readily than Republican presidents. I mean "can" in the sense that, Democratic presidents face much fewer political obstacles to doing so, because the normal political opponents of war largely mute their opposition because they are... Democatic partisans. This is obviously even more true in the aftermath of the Iraq War, but it was pretty well evident before that through 8 years of Clinton bombing a smorgasbord of foreign nations.

I say will, because, again, you've got 8 years of expansive military action under Clinton in addition to Obama to pull from. Republican military action tends to be larger in scope but (Iraq aside) I would consider it more limited when it happens, owing to the fact it's much more highly scrutinized and opposed, quite a bit less frequent. At this point, I don't imagine any place where a Republican president is going to be willing to wage war where a Democratic president would not.

To sum that up, there's a lot to suggest Obama would continue and expand the use of military force. In contrast, think there's a lot standing in the way of Romney bombing places willy-nilly the way Obama does.

Liam McDonald writes:

@MikeDC

I know you make some interesting points but as soon as you said Robert Kagan "is not generally regarded as a neo-con but a realist" I almost sprayed coffee across my laptop through my nose.

Not generally regarded as a neo-con? Seriously? When you say that, by which group is he not generally regarded as a neo-con? Fox News?

By your own admission, Mitt Romney has called for a stronger military (i.e. More Military Spending) but you think this is not aggressive but prudent as then they won't need to be used.

Closing US military bases around the world would actually accomplish exactly that same goal. It would free up almost $500B per year which would not only save the economy but allow the US to be much more aggressive through trade. Countries that trade with each other heavily are far less likely to war on each other than countries with a shared ideology.

don L writes:

I wanted Ron Paul and did not want a Bibi puppet like Romney. I will never vote for Obama because he is a gun grabber and I will never vote for more wars for israel maniacs. I will vote for Johnson now and wait for Jesse Ventura in 2016.

Greg G writes:

@ MikeDC

It seems to me that you are on pretty thin ice with your historical lessons and predictions here. Except for when you predict "we will have more war in the future." That one would have been true at any time in history.

Nothing could be easier than cherry picking from the vast variety of Mitt Romney positions and quotes on any issue.

Every single military aggressor in history has said (and many have sincerely believed) that they were playing the long game and designing a policy that would ultimately establish a lasting peace.

History shows over and over again that the best way to predict future military aggression is to see who is expanding their military. Watch what they do, not what they say.

MikeDC writes:

@ Liam
To be clear, I wasn't making that statement about Kagan, I was quoting the article linked in the OP. I didn't check to see if it was from Fox News.

At heart, I agree with your view that we should simply close our bases, pull out our troops and go home. However, since our view is in the minority, we don't get that choice. Given the choices I have, I'd rather have strong but heavily scrutinized military led by someone who seems to understand game theory than a weaker but more frequently used military with little oversight in the hands of a man who sends mixed signals to friends and enemies alike.

Our choice is a between a guy who wants more spending but will be watched like a hawk if he uses the military, and between a guy who says he wants less spending but is very willing to use military force and who gets no pressure when he does. Not only is that a recipe for more use of force, I think if we're going to do it, we'd damn well better be prepared to do it.

Romney's foreign policy and intentions on more war and war spending are indicated in his direct statements, his primary donors who support more government spending on overseas wars (big banks on the one hand, and Sheldon Adelson, for example) and his array of named neoconservative advisors, as David points out, recycled from the Bush administration. Even people who don't pay attention to politics get a war vibe from Romney. If the average voter votes on a vibe, Obama has the relatively more peaceful vibe -- even though Obama has overseen a continuation of war, and more American deaths in Afghanistan. If we vote on actual facts -- we'd vote "none of the above," Gary Johnson or Virgil Goode as the least harmful president. Voters don't monitor facts too closely, but they still wish to do the least harm, especially in times of uncertainty, and Obama is selling that message better.

caltrek writes:

I know that I have been giving Dave Anderson a hard time in some of my recent posts, but I really have to largely agree with him here. One indicator of Romney's predilictions is who are his advisers. In this article from The Nation we find that they include John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky, Eliot Cohen, Robert Joseph (a Bush aide "tarnished by the Iraqi fiasco") and Dan Senor. As the article makes clear, these are advisors are of a decidely hawkish orientation.

Fred Mangels writes:

I'll be voting for Gary Johnson, the real peace candidate: http://www.garyjohnson2012.com

David R. Henderson writes:

@caltrek,
Thanks for your comment. I assume you mean "David Henderson," i.e., me, not "Dave Anderson," right?

City Buddha writes:

Sometimes we vote the devil we know, not the devil we trust. Romney lacks political profesionalism. This is all part of a plan to place Paul Ryan as the Republican president in 2016. Presidents have no power in the military. That went out long ago. The Rothchild's plan at work.

caltrek writes:


[Comment removed for repeating irrelevance. Please consult your email about restoring your future comment privileges.--Econlib Ed.]

mikeDC writes:

@ Greg G
Well, there are a variety of causes for war, but I qualified my assertion that only lots of notable wars seem to be the result of misunderstanding of signals. World War I, the first Gulf War (in which the US famously signaled we'd not intervene if Iraq invaded Kuwait) and the Iraq War (if one believes the various accounts that suggest Saddam would have chosen exile had he believed we would really invade) are all pretty straightforward accounts of signaling.

The notion that one can predict war by seeing who's expanding their military is probably accurate but not very meaningful unless you're a complete pacifist who would argue that, say, the US and UK were wrong to prepare for WWII once they saw German rearmament.

Ken B writes:

1940, 1864, 2004, 1812. Just off the top of my head. I would count 1980 too, I suspect there are other years.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Usually your comments are easy to understand. This one isn't. You listed a bunch of dates but you didn't say anything about those dates. What point are you trying to make?

Ken B writes:

@DRH: Election years in which the 'peace' candidate lost. I am disputing the claim that Americans tend to vote for the so-called 'peace' candidate.

[I consider Churchill to have been the true peace candidate in 1938, not Chamberlain or Baldwin, which explains my scare quotes.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Of those 4 dates, the one I know best is 1940 and FDR was clearly a candidate of peace. Remember his famous October 1940 "again and again and again" speech.

Ken B writes:

@DRH: 1940. Willkie, an internationalist initially, became more isolationist as the campaign went on. FDR proposed the draft, the country's first peace time draft, during the campaign. This is not peacenikery. Willkie changed his position and opposed the draft. Willkie accused FDR of wanting to get the US into the war, and this was a major theme of the campaign.

So FDR, accused (with some justification) by his opponent of secretly wanting to get in the war, proposes the draft during the election, which Willkie opposes.

And not just the election. Also the party nominations. Willkie was by far the most hawkish republican and won the party's nomination. FDR was the most hawkish democrat and broke precedent winning that party's nomination. If you and Paul were right Nance Garner should have beaten Robert Taft, or vice versa.

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