Remember that awkward presidential open microphone incident?
It happened last March in Seoul, South Korea, when President Obama was speaking with then-Russian President Dmitry Medveded. As the men sat side by side waiting for the press to assemble for a news conference, Obama leaned in close and whispered into Medvedev’s ear. In that intimate moment, unaware that his private words would be recorded and broadcast throughout the world, Obama sent a message to Russia’s real leader, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin regarding a contentious plan to place American missiles near Russia.
“This is my last election,” Obama noted. “After my election I have more flexibility.”
The exchange encapsulates one of the great quandaries facing voters as Election Day approaches. What will really happen after the campaigning is over?
American voters are not fools. Everyone knows that the pronouncements made on the campaign trail are designed, cut and tailored to win votes. They’re not written for accuracy and precision.
Everyone knows campaign speeches cannot tell the whole story of what a president will do in office. And in fact, silences can prove more telling than rousing speeches.
This challenge to voters extends to many crucial issues, domestic and international, but it is especially difficult on foreign affairs, because the subject receives much less attention, particularly this year, and by its nature it requires circumspection. It’s easier to shroud true beliefs in a rhetorical fog or to hint you cannot speak out for security reasons.
To voters concerned with foreign policy, there is not only a practical, but also a moral question worth considering.
The moral question, which applies only to Obama because he is the sitting president, is this: If the president has put important foreign policy moves on hold until November, what price is the United States, the world, paying because of the presidential election delay?
The Obama administration has taken a disturbingly passive attitude regarding the enormously important and brutally violent war in Syria. My view is that Washington may have already missed the chance to help shape the character of the anti-Assad opposition.
By standing back, the U.S. has failed to strengthen the hand of the moderates within the opposition. America bolstered moderates in Libya, and we have seen some evidence that it paid off.
If Obama is waiting for Election Day to take action, many may have died because of the delay, and the strategic price of waiting could be very high.
On the practical side, the question for voters is simple: What would Obama and Romney do from the Oval Office?
Romney has indicated that he would take a much tougher stance on Iran, and a stronger position in support of Israel, along with a more forceful tone towards China and Russia. But it’s not exactly clear what he would do differently, or what he would do about Syria.
The candidates have mostly avoided foreign policy until now, limiting their comments to boasts about killing Bin Laden, in Obama’s case, and vague charges from Romney that the president is not tough enough on enemies or good enough to friends.
Foreign affairs seemed to offer the candidates more peril than promise. Obama has worried so much about creating electoral problems for himself that he broke with tradition and refrained from meeting with any world leader during the U.N. General Assembly. And Romney seemed afraid of drawing attention to an area where pollsters said Obama had a commanding lead after the killing of Bin Laden.
Pollsters also tell us there is a small but significant group — 6 percent of voters — who consider foreign policy the most important issue, the one that will determine their vote. That’s why in the coming days foreign policy will start making headlines.
We will never get the full, believable truth about what each man would do after November. But the candidates should be pressed to reveal more about their differences. Is Obama planning to renew his push for Israeli-Palestinian talks? Does Romney truly believe that is pointless?
What about Syria? What does Romney plan? And how can Obama explain America’s strangely disengaged stance? Does Romney really intend to antagonize Russia and China?
On that March day in Seoul, Obama accidentally revealed one of the dirty secrets of any campaign. Voters already knew that words and deeds on an election year are affected by the push to win votes. It is a challenge for voters, and journalists, to push back for answers.