Editorial: Presidential campaigns, debates need to allow closer examination of foreign affairs

Editorial Board

While there may be disagreement on the specifics, virtually every political pundit agrees that this year’s national election is and will be defined by domestic policy. In the words of CNN, “The economy, unemployment, taxes and how to manage the federal government’s $14 trillion debt will be leading issues in the 2012 campaign.”

Their assessment parallels that given by a substantial majority of Americans. According to one of CNN’s polls, 46 percent of Americans believe the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Fifteen percent of Americans thought the most important issue was the federal budget deficit, 14 percent said it was health care, and 10 percent said education. Only 4 percent thought the most important issue was Afghanistan.

Foreign affairs rarely gain much attention. That is especially so when President Barack Obama’s rhetoric focuses on the middle class and — still — the economic crisis that began during President George W. Bush’s second term and set the stage for Obama’s first. Nor do Mitt Romney’s credentials as CEO of Bain Capital and governor of Massachusetts help bring events abroad into campaign issues.

Yet it is in foreign policy that the president has the greatest latitude. As the paramount representative of the United States, interacting with other heads of state, the man who holds the presidential office can act with greatest flexibility.

In that arena, where expediency governs action and discretion is essential, where there is not enough time to consult Congress and expose matters of national security to highly public scrutiny, the president can take whatever measures are not prohibited by Congress. In foreign affairs, the president is the commander-in-chief and does not need to persuade other agents of the United States. There, he can simply command.

It might simply reflect the fact that the first presidential debate was about domestic issues and both the vice presidential debate and second presidential debate will be split between foreign and domestic issues. But that approach does not allow the candidates to shine in the area for which they are responsible.

After all, it is Congress that has the power to make laws and, if the president fails to carry them out faithfully according to the Constitution, to impeach and put the president on trial. That approach does not allow the American people to vet the candidates in light of purely and exclusively presidential powers.

Nor does it force the American people — constituents, voters and representatives alike — to take responsibility for taking action that fixes whatever ails the country. Time and again popular discourse indignantly asks, “Why doesn’t the president do something?”

Well, he can’t. The people can. Each branch of government has a separate sphere, and we need to consider them within those spheres.