Obama camp makes play to reframe national security debate

With its new message about a "changing world," the campaign looks to turn the current narrative about the issue on its head.

Published July 16, 2008 8:25PM (EDT)

On Wednesday, Barack Obama's campaign debuted its second ad focused on national security in two days. This latest spot, "Changing World," will begin running on national cable on Thursday.

"Forty years ago it was missile silos and the Cold War," the ad's narrator says. "Today, it's cyber attacks, loose nukes, oil money funding terrorism. Barack Obama understands our changing world. On the Foreign Relations Committee, he cosponsored a law to lock down loose nuclear weapons. As president, he'll rebuild our alliances to take out terrorist networks."

This ad's release came shortly after related remarks that Obama made during a summit on national security. According to his prepared remarks, when speaking of measures taken to protect the U.S. following the attacks of Sept. 11, Obama said:

The danger is that we are constantly fighting the last war -- responding to the threats that have come to fruition, instead of staying one step ahead of the threats of the 21st century. This is what the 9/11 Commission called our 'failure of imagination ...'

It's time to update our national security strategy to stay one step ahead of the terrorists -- to see clearly the emerging threats of our young century... It's time to look ahead -- at the dangers of today and tomorrow rather than those of yesterday. America cannot afford another president who doesn't understand the threats that confront us now and in the future.

This language, coupled with the similar message in the ad, seems to be the Obama camp's attempt to shift the current narrative about national security to Obama's favor. John McCain has been given the benefit of the doubt by much of the media and by voters. The Obama camp's new argument turns this advantage against McCain -- and goes at voter concern about his age -- to argue that even given his relative lack of experience in dealing with national security, Obama is the better choice on the issue.

Writing at the Plank, one of the New Republic's blogs, Jonathan Chait had a pretty astute take on this:

The political problem [Obama]'s facing is the (not at all crazy) perception that McCain's experience, and his lack thereof, makes Obama less qualified to handle foreign policy. Obama here tries to turn the premise on its head: the world is changing, and the only way to lead it is to understand how it's different. John McCain might be your man if we were looking to win the Cold War, but we need a leader who isn't stuck in the past ...

I don't know if or to what extent Obama's message here can work. But this seems like exactly the right tact (sic) he should be taking -- framing the foreign policy debate, like Jack Kennedy did, as something that needs new thinking.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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