Obama’s Foreign Policy Gurus

Posted July 15, 2008 at 6:47pm

As he looks to shore up his credibility as the next commander in chief, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has started employing new Senate surrogates to echo his foreign policy message and help beat back criticisms that he’s ill-prepared to lead the country in a time of war.

Obama has turned to his Democratic colleagues for months to advance his candidacy, but in recent days and weeks he has added to his arsenal many of the chamber’s senior policy experts on national security and the Iraq War — two areas where he’s aiming to bolster his credentials heading into the November election. Among his newfound wingmen on those subjects: Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (Del.), Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.), and senior Armed Services members Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).

The increase in Obama’s surrogate use comes just as he looks to amplify his positions on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and tries to deflect attacks from his rival, Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Obama delivered a major speech on the issues Tuesday and this summer is planning a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq with Reed and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.).

Nick Shapiro, an Obama spokesman, said it is “absolutely correct” that Obama has been enlisting a new cadre of Senate surrogates, including many of the most seasoned Democrats on foreign affairs. Not only is Obama soliciting those lawmakers’ spokesmen, but he is seeking their counsel and advice as he charts his message and strategy, Shapiro said.

“Sen. Obama greatly respects their leadership on these issues and their vast base of knowledge,” Shapiro said.

“This is exactly why we built a Congressional liaison team to ensure the Senate and House Members work very well together,” Shapiro added. “Having Sens. Biden, Reed, Bayh and others come campaign for him shows momentum and shows his leadership on these issues.”

Reed, in an interview on Tuesday, downplayed his recent work on behalf of Obama. “I stand ready to help our presidential candidate in any way I can. It’s something I have done and will continue to do,” he said. “Sen. Obama can’t be everywhere — you have to employ representatives.”

Reed called the effort “one part of an elaborate campaign operation — and both candidates have them.”

Levin agreed, and dismissed any suggestion that his surrogate relationship with Obama is unique to this year’s presidential hopeful, whom detractors have criticized as thin on foreign policy experience. Underscoring that he believes Obama is qualified and has the judgment for a commander in chief, Levin said he would serve the same role for any Democratic nominee and that the level of interaction “would be there whether it’s Sen. Obama or” 2004 presidential contender Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

The veteran Michigan Democrat said he’s in regular talks with the Obama campaign, giving his take on global events and offering an early look on any statements or proposals relating to security and foreign policy. Levin said that as “time goes on, we’re in closer and closer communication and more frequent communication.”

Unlike most Democratic Senators, Levin, Reed and Biden all remained neutral during the primary phase of their party’s presidential contest that wrapped up on June 3. Another newly indoctrinated Obama surrogate, Bayh, supported Obama’s rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

One Democrat close to the Obama campaign said that while some Hill Democrats believe the Illinois Senator has been too slow to organize his general election effort, he appears to have put a plan in place. A big part of that, this Democrat said, has been enlisting the foreign-policy-minded Senators to help Obama take on McCain, who as a former prisoner of war and senior member of the Armed Services Committee is widely viewed as having the upper hand on issues such as the war in Iraq.

“They add legitimacy,” this Democrat said. “First, these surrogates already have built-in credibility. Second, it shows a broadening of his base. That says something to people when you pick up people who weren’t committed” previously.

McCain has proved an effective chief executive officer when it comes to enlisting his Senate colleagues on the trail, particularly in recent weeks as the campaign has turned toward November. Two of his top surrogates, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), have criticized Obama’s position on the war in Iraq and raised questions about the consistency in his positions.

Graham said that no matter whom Obama asks to help lead his charge, he will fall short, saying the problem rests not with the number or quality of the messengers but with the message. When it comes to foreign policy, Graham said, Obama can’t trump McCain, who he argued has the depth of experience and knowledge to handle two ongoing wars and burgeoning troubles across the globe.

“I don’t know who he is going to send out … and these are all people I respect … but they are all, quite frankly, dead wrong on Iraq,” Graham said.

Graham’s charges are one of the primary examples of why Congressional Democrats — and Obama’s campaign in particular — now recognize they should make better use of the Senate’s foreign policy heavyweights. Senate Democrats said Obama understands that he has a wealth of expertise at his disposal, as well as an available army of willing volunteers.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Obama’s first Senate supporters, said Obama “is blessed with riches on the surrogate front right now.” She added that her Illinois colleague understands and is taking full advantage of “the luxury of having supporters who don’t need talking points from the campaign. They don’t need to look at the polls. They know the subject matter backward and forward.”