The complicated politics of the Libya attack — and why Obama is on more solid ground

September 12, 2012

The death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in a rocket attack on Tuesday almost immediately turned into a major skirmish between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and President Obama, a reflection of a highly polarized election where every event is gamed for political advantage.

First in a statement late Tuesday and then in a hastily-organized press conference on Wednesday morning in Florida, Romney sought to cast the incident as an example of the mixed messaging and flawed foreign policy approach of the Obama Administration -- seizing on the fact that the American embassy in Cairo, where there had also been protests on Tuesday, had released a statement condemning "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." (That statement came well before the Libya attack, and before the protests in Cairo began.)

"I think it is a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said at his press conference this morning.

The White House insisted it had not approved of the Egyptian embassy statement before it was sent out. Others noted that the statement was issued prior to the attack on Ambassador John Christopher Stevens and well before his death had been confirmed.

The Obama campaign fired back at Romney; "We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack," said campaign spokesman Ben Labolt.

The politics of this incident are complicated. Let's unpack them.

First, it's important to remember that for all the attention this episode is and will continue to draw throughout the day, there's little to no evidence that it will change the governing dynamic of the race -- a referendum on the economy and President Obama's handling of it -- in any meaningful way.

Foreign policy is, at best, a middle-of-the-mind issue for most voters even in the best of economic times.  In times of economic distress -- like these -- foreign policy is barely even a blip on the political radar. While the Libya attack is a high-profile moment, it lacks the urgency of struggling to pay your mortgage or worrying about whether you can keep your job.

That said, it's clear that Romney and Obama are trying to make a political point here.

Romney's decision to condemn the White House for allegedly apologizing is a clear play to the Republican base who has believed almost since the minute President Obama took office that he has been more willing to make excuses for our enemies than stand up for America.

Romney was far from the only Republican to bash Obama for the Cairo embassy statement.

Here's a tweet from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus:

And here's one from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich:

The strategy from Republicans -- from Romney on down -- seems to be that the base of their party will be further inflamed by the way the Obama Administration has handled this moment and that undecideds and independents likely won't be paying enough attention (see our point above about foreign policy) for it to matter.

The Obama campaign clearly sees an opportunity in Romney's statement. While they will privately acknowledge that foreign policy in and of itself isn't likely to decide the election, Obama strategists (and many Republican political types) believe that there is an intangible "commander-in-chief" test that all challengers seeking to unseat incumbent presidents must pass.

While people may not care about foreign policy per se, they DO want/need to believe that the person they are putting in the White House has the gravitas and leadership to represent our country on the world stage.  What the Obama campaign has and will continue to do is cast Romney's response to the Libya attack as something short of presidential -- putting out a statement before all the facts were in and then doubling down on that statement for political reasons. (Of course, there is NOTHING that doesn't have a tinge -- or more -- of politics in it 55 days before a presidential election.)

According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Obama is on solid ground in launching this hit.  Fully 51 percent of registered voters said they trusted the incumbent more to handle "international affairs" while 38 percent said they trusted Romney more.

Viewed broadly, Romney is clearly taking a major risk in his decision to double-down on his denunciation of the Obama Administration for its role (or lack thereof) in the Libya attack and its aftermath. It's an approach that will play well to the party's base but it's hard to imagine they need to be any more enthusiastic than they already are about the November election.

Romney's approach hands the Obama team an opening to cast the challenger as not ready for the job, someone who jumps to conclusions before all the facts are known.  And, at least at the moment, that appears to be the stronger (political) argument.

Read more from PostPolitics

Romney stands by criticism of White House on Libya

Obama: 'Make no mistake, justice will be done'

GOP leaders less critical than Romney on Libya

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Jon Cohen · September 12, 2012