By Alicia M. Cohn - 05/21/12 09:00 AM EDT
In a month where international affairs have taken a larger role in the presidential campaign, this past weekend’s G8 and NATO summits provided President Obama another chance to shore up his foreign policy credentials in the race against presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Romney’s campaign has sought to keep the election focused on the economy, dismissing other issues raised as "distractions" from Obama's record on jobs. But the president’s talks with world leaders at Camp David and in Chicago, combined with the arrival of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to the United States, dominated the news cycle over the weekend, demonstrating one advantage of being the incumbent.
Obama hosted the leaders of the G8 nations at Camp David in Maryland on Saturday. After months of upheaval over the best way for the allies to tackle Europe's stumbling economy, Obama claimed that an "emerging consensus" for promoting growth and addressing the debt crisis “was strengthened at Camp David.”
The president then flew to Chicago on Saturday night to participate in the largest NATO summit in the organization's history, with representatives from some 60 countries. The two-day event began Sunday and continues into Monday, with talks focusing on implementing the post-war agreement that Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed on May 1 in Kabul.
Obama and Karzai discussed the important and delicate transition process to reporters on Sunday afternoon, when they both looked forward — well past the November election — to achieving established goals for peace. According to the agreement, American and coalition forces will be out of the country by 2014, but a U.S. presence will be maintained until 2024 to assist local Afghan forces.
Obama said that the United States and allies were "painting a vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues."
Romney addressed the NATO summit in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune published Saturday in which he attacked a topic lower on the organization’s agenda, arguing that Obama failed to encourage NATO allies to maintain their defense budgets.
"With the United States on a path to a hollow military, we are hardly in a position to exercise leadership in persuading our allies to spend more on security," he wrote. Romney has pledged to put more money into defense spending as president.
In a statement released ahead of the summit, Romney again hammered that theme, urging NATO's leaders to "take to heart" the lesson of the group's Cold War founding, that "the price of weakness is always far greater than the price of strength."
Romney warned that the Obama administration has weakened the military and thus weakened the NATO alliance. “As president, I will work closely with our partners to bolster the alliance. I will reverse Obama-era military cuts. I will exercise leadership on missile defense, cyber capability, energy security, and sufficiently mobile forces," he vowed in the statement.
But with all eyes on Obama's meeting with Karzai, bolstered by the popularity of concluding the war in Afghanistan, Romney's critique failed to muster attention.
Obama also received a boost this weekend as his administration emerged from a diplomatic minefield by securing human rights activist Chen Guangcheng's exit from China.
Chen, along with his family, arrived safely in the United States on Saturday after securing a fellowship offer to continue his studies at New York University.
"We’re pleased that this was able to reach a resolution," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes in a White House press briefing. "There was good work done by the State Department in this instance, and the White House fully supported those efforts."
Romney had harshly criticized the administration's handling of the case in the past, suggesting the State Department failed to "defend freedom" in favor of smoothing over diplomatic relations when reports emerged that Chen's family had been threatened after he left the U.S. embassy, where he had sought refuge from house arrest.
While State Department and White House officials celebrated Chen's safety on Saturday, Romney released a statement about Chen that repeated his past statements criticizing China’s record on human rights but also offering praise for U.S. officials’ handling of the matter.
“I commend the U.S. diplomats and officials who worked to ensure that the Chinese government followed through on its commitments,” said Romney in the statement, calling himself "heartened and relieved" to hear Chen was on a plane to the United States.
Overall, the weekend highlighted the challenges facing Romney as polls now consistently give Obama the advantage on foreign affairs, a rarity for Democrats.
Obama led Romney by 20 points in trust to handle terrorism and international affairs in an ABC News/Washington Post survey taken in February, and again held a double-digit lead (51 percent to 38) in a poll taken in early May by Politico/George Washington University in which likely voters were asked who would "better handle" foreign policy.
Reports suggest Romney's campaign may be considering confronting foreign policy head-on with a speech by the candidate within the next month, but the campaign did not respond when asked to comment.
Republicans did attempt to counter Obama on the successful raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death during the first anniversary of the event in early May.
Romney said at the time that Obama made an easy call — one any other president would make — by sending the Navy SEAL team into the al Qaeda leader's hideout last May.
But the campaign seemed to quickly back off the fight, pivoting to an unemployment-based attack within the next 48 hours.
And on Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus granted Obama ownership of the bin Laden success.
"We give him that," said Priebus on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're all grateful and blessed that bin Laden is not alive anymore."