It is very early in the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, but some key themes are already emerging.
First, President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign policy is likely to be a major focus of attack by what is expected to be a large field of Republican presidential contenders.
And second, from the Republican’s point of view, focusing fire on the Obama record has the additional benefit of drawing attention to Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state just as she is assumed to be preparing the launch of her own presidential campaign later this year.
Although it's likely that foreign policy will be a major issue in the 2016 race for the White House, Americans tend to vote on the strength of the domestic economy and their personal feelings about the candidates in presidential elections.
But the ongoing threat from Islamic State militants in the Middle East, combined with worries about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, continues to test U.S. leadership abroad.
Any White House aspirant for 2016 is going to have to convince the public that they are capable not only of governing at home but also confronting major international challenges that won’t fade with the change of a U.S. administration.
Should she run, Clinton will prove a huge favorite for the Democratic Party nomination, and there is a growing consensus among party leaders and pundits that it is a question of when — not if — she will announce her candidacy.
While Clinton’s time as President Obama’s secretary of state gives Republicans a foreign policy record to pick at during the campaign, it also offers her something few of them can claim — legitimate expertise in international affairs.
Inexperienced GOP hopefuls
The likely Republican presidential field will include a lot of new faces with little foreign policy experience.
The closest thing to a frontrunner at the moment is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose strong name recognition and fundraising capabilities won’t give him foreign policy advantage over fellow Republicans.
“He is not quite the favorite that Hillary Clinton is on the Democratic side, but he is a very strong candidate and it looks like he is looking to run,” said John Fortier of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
Bush has said he favors sustained U.S. engagement with the world but has offered few details of his foreign policy approach or how it might contrast with that of his brother, former President George W. Bush, or his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
Among GOP newcomers expected to seek the nomination: U.S. senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, all of whom recently appeared at a forum hosted by Charles and David Koch, perhaps the most influential fundraisers for conservative candidates and ideas. While Rubio and Cruz used the event to criticize Obama’s outreach to Cuba and his handling of Iran nuclear talks, Paul had a different view on both issues, expressing opposition to additional Iranian sanctions and calling 50 years of Cuba isolation a failure.
Paul, whose Libertarian views are likely to contrast with the Republican field, also told the conservative forum that its next presidential nominee must treat war as "the last resort, not the first.”
Rejecting the label of foreign policy “isolationism,” as some fellow Republicans have recently charged, Paul may launch his presidential bid at a time when security concerns have returned to the forefront of the American electorate. A recent Bloomberg survey found that nearly half of Republican voters identify “more aggressively pursuing terrorists” as a top issue, likely due to events unfolding in Ukraine and the Middle East.
While Paul could fare well in Republican debates focused on the issue of big government — he enjoys strong support among Republicans who identify as libertarians concerned with bloated government — he may have a tougher time explaining his foreign policy stance to conservatives seeking a more hawkish nominee.
Some of the different approaches among the likely Republican White House hopefuls will be on display when Congress moves to debate President Obama authority to conduct a wider military campaign against the Islamic State.
Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Obama's top diplomat has become a centerpiece of the Republican critique of Obama’s foreign policy record — and a staple of Senator Ted Cruz's speeches to conservative groups.
“The failures of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy are manifest,” Cruz recently said. “It’s almost like the whole world is on fire right now. It seems there is not a portion of the world where security, where our relationship with our allies, where our ability to contain our enemies, to defeat our enemies ... hasn’t gotten worse.”
Other likely Republican contenders are staking out strong positions on confronting the Islamic State (IS) group. Both Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently said they were open to sending U.S. troops to battle IS, despite national polls that show Americans remain wary of foreign military involvements in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But regardless of how large foreign policy issues may loom over the upcoming race for the White House, mainstay conservative voters will want to hear specifics about how contenders would plan to repeal Obamacare, cut the size of government, and make U.S. borders secure from illegal immigrants.
Some Republican analysts also believe the party’s presidential contenders must do more than simply criticize the Obama record; commentator Scot Faulkner said voters will be looking to Republicans to offer sensible approaches to domestic and foreign policy challenges of the coming administration.
“One questions is, can Obama, two years from now, be wildly popular, have peace and have prosperity? If that becomes true, the Democrats could win,” he said. “And so the Republicans have to do more than just tear down Obama because we could be at peace and we could have prosperity, so you have to have an alternative. And if you don’t have that alternative vision, what do you have?”
Republican strategist Phillip Stutts said it will also be important for Republican congressional leaders to show the country they can govern to set the stage for a presidential victory in 2016.
“We have to show leadership,” Stutts said. “We have to show that we have ideas otherwise we are not going to win in 2016. And this is our chance.”