Cyr: What Barack Obama needs to do at Democratic convention

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"A rendezvous with destiny" is a useful reference in discussing the 2012 Democratic Party Convention in Charlotte, N.C. President Barack Obama faces no challenge to renomination for a second term, but the fall election provides a decisive test following his remarkably swift rise to the White House.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the dramatic destiny declaration at the 1936 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Convention speeches generally are much noted at the time, but not long remembered.

FDR provides an exception in this regard and others. In seeking a second term, he faced an economy still immersed in the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler's Germany was rapidly remilitarizing while implementing ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, Japan's invasion of China had been under way for five years and Italy had invaded and occupied Ethiopia.

Today, international relations are far safer and more stable but remain challenging, especially for Democrats. Over many years, opinion polls have shown that Americans generally think Republican leadership is more effective at protecting national security, supporting our military forces and combating terrorism.

This reflects in part the terrible trauma of the Vietnam War and the general turbulence of the 1960s. That war was vastly escalated by the Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention divided over the war into turbulence and some violence, while a full-fledged riot broke out between demonstrators and police outside the hall.

In succeeding years, the Democratic and Republican parties became respectively much more liberal and conservative. Polls show current all-volunteer military personnel are overwhelmingly Republican in political sentiment, in marked contrast to more balanced party preferences during the years of the military draft.

Obama at the convention can be expected to argue a strong, well-prepared case for national security effectiveness. Evidence includes his retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates from the Bush administration, reflecting political calculation as well as respect for this particular public servant.

The Obama administration has been extremely aggressive in targeting and killing individual terrorists. Simultaneously, the administration has returned to traditional Washington emphasis on working whenever possible in partnership with allies and established international organizations, in particular NATO and the United Nations.

The Iraq war was not as divisive in U.S. domestic politics as the Vietnam War, or even the Korean War, but also was never strongly supported by the public at large. Obama has fulfilled a campaign pledge in withdrawing U.S. military forces from direct ground engagement in that country. He has also been consistent with 2008 campaign statements in making Afghanistan a higher strategic priority.

Opinion polls show strong, long-term public support for arms control. In December 2010, the Obama administration scored a victory when the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. In a rare example of Senate bipartisanship, 13 Republicans joined the two independents and all the Democrats in supporting the treaty, which passed 71-26.

Above all, Obama must energize his election base and attract additional public support. FDR could cite exceptional success in passing comprehensive New Deal economic reform legislation, while alluding to gathering clouds of war.

Obama likewise must provide a persuasive argument for re-election, and foreign policy should be included. Unlike 2008, he cannot rely solely on acknowledged brilliance as a campaign orator.

Writer Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr@carthage.edu

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