By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 09/13/12 12:16 AM EDT
The sudden crisis in the Middle East poses a major challenge for President Obama, who will have to defend his foreign policies and respond to partisan attacks less than two months before the election.
Some GOP officials on Wednesday sought to fit the deadly attacks in Libya into their narrative that Obama’s leadership skills are akin to ex-President Jimmy Carter’s.
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) on Wednesday said, “President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House.”
Republican strategist Rick Wilson made the same point: “It is a comparison that is inevitable in a situation like this. The minute our embassies are burning overseas, American voters read that as weakness and failure.”
But Democratic strategists scoffed at the verbal assaults. They insisted there is no valid comparison to be made, adding that it is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who holds the losing political hand, thanks to the widespread criticism (including by some conservatives) of his handling of the international events.
“Their attempts to turn Obama into a president elected 36 years ago have been going on for years and it just doesn’t resonate with anyone but their hardcore base,” Democratic strategist Doug Thornell asserted. “Voters don’t look at Obama and think of Jimmy Carter, just like they don’t think of Ronald Reagan when they look at Mitt Romney.”
Obama didn’t shy away from firing back, when, in an interview with CBS News, he alleged that Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
The political stakes in the battle are extremely high. For both Obama and Romney, the danger is that missteps on such a salient issue could all too easily fuel the story that each man’s opponents want to tell about him.
The breaking news Tuesday night into Wednesday represented a test of both campaigns, which have been primarily focused on the economy and jobs.
For Obama, the danger is that any perceived weakness could fit into the Romney-driven narrative that he is out of his depth and a talker rather than a doer. (Romney’s book, published in 2010, was titled No Apology, a not-so-subtle jab at the president.)
For Team Romney, the fear is that the firestorm that met his initial statement on Tuesday night could heighten concerns that he is not ready for prime time, especially on the international stage. Obama used his speech at the recent Democratic National Convention to mock Romney’s international trip in July, during which the Republican drew rebukes from British Prime Minister David Cameron and others.
One of the White House’s first key actions in reacting to events in the Middle East was to distance itself from the first statement to come out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The embassy statement condemned what it termed “the continuing efforts by misguided officials to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
Administration officials swiftly insisted that this did not reflect their position. Most people thought they had little choice but to back away from the embassy’s statement.
“The walk-back was a must — mostly because blaming the victim is really never a winning position. The difficult thing is that diplomacy and political campaigns are oil and water: not a good mix,” said Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University.
Many conservatives, however, remain deeply unhappy about the initial remarks.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute described the original statement as “unbelievable,” saying that “if we want to apologize for every stupid thing that an American says, we are going to be in deep trouble.”
Pletka dismissed the White House’s subsequent efforts at clarification.
“Do these people not work for the president of the United States?” she asked rhetorically. “I would be quite happy believing that the statement had not been cleared with Barack Obama personally. But you have two choices: You can fire somebody, or you can take responsibility and admit it was a dumb thing to say.”
Democrats said the dispute over this element of the crisis was overshadowed by Romney’s statement, his news conference Wednesday morning and the general displeasure with which both were met by many figures even in the GOP establishment.
“In hindsight, they didn’t need to distance themselves from it, given the timing of the statement coming hours before the attacks and the way in which Romney has been pummeled for misrepresenting it,” one Democratic strategist said.
Some conservatives, meanwhile, seem to view the comparison between the incumbent president and Carter as a stretch.
“I think it is a valid comparison on the face of it. But there is a difference in that, in Carter’s case, the question of the hostages kept the immediate crisis and the perception of weakness front and center for months,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. “Obama does not have to deal with that.”
Some Democrats hearkened back to an earlier crisis in claiming that the whole affair would redound to Obama’s benefit. They pointed out that, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, it was Obama, then a relatively inexperienced senator, who seemed to keep a clear head while his experienced rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was criticized for what some saw as his impulsive and directionless approach.
“Sept. 12, 2012, may do Romney as much damage as Sept. 15, 2008, did McCain,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “Temperament and judgment are key presidential qualities, and so far Romney is failing those tests much the way McCain did four years ago during the financial crisis.”