In 2008, The National Interest offered a split endorsement of that year’s presidential candidates. The magazine’s late president, Robert Ellsworth, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama, while its publisher, Dimitri Simes, endorsed Republican John McCain.
In 2012, however, we are united in endorsing Governor Mitt Romney. That does not mean that we agree with all of his positions, and we are aware of his fluid positions on a number of important issues. But no candidate is perfect. And, given how the American political process works today, a perfect candidate probably couldn’t win and likely wouldn’t run. Besides, adjusting one’s positions from primaries to general elections is hardly unusual in American politics.
Presidential elections are, first and foremost, referendums on the incumbent, unless the challenger is somehow fundamentally flawed. Notwithstanding President Obama’s campaign efforts to demonize Governor Romney, the governor is not in that category. Moreover, Mr. Obama’s own record in the office argues against granting him four more years during very challenging times both at home and abroad.
On foreign policy, the Obama record is unimpressive. He deserves credit for a moderate temper and a predisposition to analysis and reflection. He is indeed a pragmatic leader in pursuing his objectives. Unfortunately, foreign policy never became a true priority for him. Both his apparent emotional commitment to domestic transformation and an associated desire to avoid things abroad that could damage him at home made his global conduct reactive and inconsistent. While running for office and at the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama had promised a new foreign policy for America. Instead, we got Bush lite: action insufficient to get results and yet quite sufficient to produce backlash against the United States from many other powers and movements.
With Iran, President Obama was able to enhance sanctions against Tehran, but uranium enrichment has continued and even accelerated. A recent meeting of nonaligned nations in Tehran demonstrated that the mullahs are hardly isolated internationally, which means a military strike from the United States and/or Israel would generate a powerful counterreaction. To be fair, forcing Iran to surrender its nuclear weapons capability in a reliable fashion would not be easy for anyone. But the Obama administration has failed to fully explore the limits of Tehran’s flexibility at the negotiating table. And, by allowing relations with China and Russia to deteriorate, it has missed a likely opportunity for generating greater pressure on Iran through a unified United Nations Security Council.
With China, the Obama administration started with a soft touch, professing it had no intent to interfere in China’s domestic affairs. But soon, under domestic pressure, we got back to lecturing and posturing with predictable results. With Russia, the reset was always more about a change in tone than substance, and now little is left of it—despite Mr. Obama’s promise, uttered through what he thought was a dead microphone, that he would be more flexible with Vladimir Putin after his reelection.
In terms of American policy toward the Arab world, the promise of the Cairo speech remains unfulfilled. Mr. Obama’s attempt to freeze Israeli settlements ended in a fiasco. His halfhearted support of Arab revolutions, often in response to American domestic pressure and sometimes without clear distinctions between friends and foes, has left the United States more vulnerable in the region and at the mercy of local actors who frequently harbor contempt for American interests as well as democratic principles.
Mr. Obama is disingenuous when talking about American heroes coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan in fulfillment of his electoral promise. They are indeed coming home but hardly in victory. Iraq is neither on a path to democracy nor allied with the United States on key matters such as Iran and Syria. The troops left because the administration wasn’t able to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, which would have assured continued U.S. influence in a country for which America paid so much in blood and treasure. In Afghanistan, President Obama rejected the recommendation of the military regarding the size of his “surge.” The result is that success on the ground is less likely. On Obama’s watch, there was no meaningful governmental reform in Afghanistan that could have made the Taliban less appealing. Although Osama bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda remains a potent force, and the relationship with Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons potentially representing a greater threat to the United States than the Iranian nuclear program, is as bad as ever. Pakistan is clearly at fault on many fronts, but the administration’s insensitivity and heavy-handed approach to that troubled but crucial country made a tough situation worse.
But the biggest reason to end Obama’s incumbency is his inability to turn around the U.S. economy and to bring Americans together—two requirements for U.S. global leadership. Further, the manner in which President Obama has approached both of these requirements is troubling. Contrary to Mr. Obama’s statements, the United States does not need more nation building at home. Social engineering by the imperial federal government is not what made this nation great. Certainly we need adequate regulations, but they should be calibrated to enhance the market economy’s ability to function, not to enable the Washington command center to impose its will on society.
There is no denying that President Obama received a terrible economic inheritance from the Bush administration. But his job was to turn it around. He didn’t. His stimulus package was designed less to jump-start the economy and create jobs than to accommodate left-liberal economic priorities of Nancy Pelosi and her acolytes in the Democratic House. Obamacare was correctly defined by the Supreme Court as a new tax despite President Obama’s commitment not to introduce new taxes on the middle class. And for a program of such magnitude and huge consequence to be introduced through stealthy and strong-arm parliamentary maneuvers was bound to enrage not only congressional Republicans but also a large part of the American public. This represented a serious presidential error in judgment.
Finally, we could never get comfortable with Mr. Obama’s relentless and polarizing campaign against the upper-middle class, which certainly includes families making $250,000 per year, particularly in the big coastal cities. As Mr. Romney suggested, the main motive of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric was not economic necessity but, first and foremost, his wealth-redistribution theology. The president has criticized Governor Romney for alienating Hispanic voters, but how would Mr. Obama account for his falling popularity among white voters, still a considerable majority of the American electorate? Some pundits insist this stems from racial prejudice. There is no evidence for this, and it insults a large segment of the electorate that helped put Mr. Obama over the top four years ago. Indeed, opinion polls typically demonstrate that white voters often give African American candidates fewer votes when they are initially elected than when those black politicians seek reelection. This suggests whites, like others, base their votes on actual performance in office. The opposite is happening to Mr. Obama—in part, no doubt, because of his lackluster performance in office but also due to his searing class-warfare attitude, which also complicates his efforts to bring the country together for the heavy lifting essential to protect American prosperity and security.
Will Governor Romney be up to the job? The country never knows when it elects a president just what it is getting. Only time in office can answer that question. But he was a genuinely successful entrepreneur, chief of the U.S. Olympic Committee and governor of Massachusetts. In all these capacities, he managed to define priorities, find pragmatic solutions and build relationships, including with opposition forces. He deserves an opportunity to prove himself as president of the United States.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest. Dimitri K. Simes is publisher of The National Interest and President of the Center for the National Interest.
Image: Gage Skidmore