Biden's 2020 opening? Dem field missing foreign policy hand

WASHINGTON (AP) — In town halls, television interviews and social media posts, Democratic presidential candidates are touting their support for "Medicare-for-all," higher taxes on the wealthy and a war on climate change. But foreign policy, one of the chief responsibilities of a president, is largely taking a back seat on the campaign trail.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is seizing on that opening to position himself as the sole global policy expert in a crowded Democratic field if he decides to run for president.

In a series of speeches over the past month, Biden portrayed himself as an authoritative counterweight to President Donald Trump's isolationist and nationalistic impulses. Last week, he told an audience in Germany that his vision of America "stands up to the aggression of dictators." The problems of the 21st century, he later said at the University of Pennsylvania, can't be solved "without there being cooperation." His advisers have endorsed his foreign policy credentials to key political operatives and allies in early-voting states.

The moves reflect the vulnerabilities Biden, a 76-year-old firmly aligned with the Democratic establishment, could exploit in a crowded primary with rivals who are decades younger and working overtime to appeal to the party's liberal base. In that kind of race, Biden could carve out space as a battle-tested statesman with the experience to stabilize America's role in the world.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has already pledged to support Biden over home-state colleague Kamala Harris, recently summed up his advantage: "Huge international experience," she told reporters. "And a knowledge that's really unparalleled in terms of what's happening in the world."

Scott Mulhauser, Biden's former deputy chief of staff, said focusing on foreign policy and national security "is a smart way to draw distinctions" in the primary field.

But running on foreign policy could carry risks. Although the election season is in its infancy and a crisis could shuffle priorities, it's not clear that foreign policy is a top issue on voters' minds.

AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate, found that 5 percent of 2018 midterm voters said foreign policy was the top issue facing the country. That falls well behind the percentage saying health care (26 percent), immigration (23 percent) or the economy (18 percent) topped their list.

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Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden together through the years
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Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden together through the years
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) attend a ceremony to unveil a portrait honoring retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) is joined by her husband former US President Bill Clinton (R) and US Vice President Joe Biden as she is ceremonially sworn in at the State Department in Washington, February 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton welcomes Vice President Joe Biden as he disembarks from Air Force Two for a joint campaign event in Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
PORTSMOUTH, NH - MAY 11: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) greets fellow presidential candidate Joe Biden (D-DE) in the lobby of the Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth after addressing the International Association of Fire Fighters Convention (IAFF) Conference May 11, 2007 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The IAFF is a labor union of fire fighters from the United States and Canada, formed in 1918, consisting of 280,000 members. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden campaign together during an event in Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden wave to neighbors as they stopped to visit Biden's childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) attend a ceremony to unveil a portrait honoring retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden campaign together during an event in Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) addresses a luncheon held in honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L), as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden looks on at the State Department in Washington, June 7, 2011. REUTERS/Stelios Varias (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 15: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden conduct a campaign rally at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., August 15, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Scranton, PA - AUGUST 15: Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and US Vice President Joe Biden acknowledge the crowd at Riverfront Sports athletic facility on August 15, 2016 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton focused her speech on the economy and bringing jobs to the key swing state of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review from the White House Briefing Room with Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking on in Washington December 16, 2010. The review said "notable operational gains" had been made and Taliban momentum had been "arrested" in much of the country and reversed in some areas, but any gains were fragile and reversible. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Combination images show U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) sharing a laugh during the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 29, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
Orangeburg, UNITED STATES: Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) US Senator Joe Biden, US Senator Barack Obama and US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton arrive at the Democratic Party Presidential Primary Debate, 26 April 2007, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US Democratic Senator from Nedw York Hillary Clinton (R) greets a member of Congress next to Democratic Senator from Delaware Joe Biden (C) as they arrives for US President George W. Bush's annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington 23 January 2007. AFP PHOTO/Larry Downing/Pool (Photo credit should read LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Vice President Joe Biden (L), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Also pictured are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2nd R) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (R). Please note: A classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured at source. Picture taken May 1, 2011. A pivotal moment in the long, tortuous quest to find Osama bin Laden came years before U.S. spy agencies discovered his hermetic compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS To match special report BINLADEN/KILL (SPECIAL REPORT)
Orangeburg, UNITED STATES: Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) US Senator Joe Biden, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton arrive at the Democratic Party Presidential Primary Debate, 26 April 2007, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Orangeburg, UNITED STATES: Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) US Senator Joe Biden, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton arrive at the Democratic Party Presidential Primary Debate, 26 April 2007, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)(L) and U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) speak after their debate at Howard University in Washington, June 28, 2007. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (R) is greeted by U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-De) at a Democratic Presidential Candidates Forum sponsored by AFSCME in Carson City, Nevada, February 21, 2007. REUTERS/Kimberly White (UNITED STATES)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (L) and Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) listen as U.S. President George W. Bush delivers the final State of the Union address of his presidency in Washington January 28, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks while Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) listens during the AFL-CIO Presidential Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago, August 7, 2007. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) presents a gift to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden watches, during a luncheon held in Merkel's honor at the State Department in Washington June 7, 2011. REUTERS/Stelios Varias (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk during a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington December 7, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES POLITICS)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) speaks at the third annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) at the Department of the Interior in Washington May 9, 2011. Flanking Biden are Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan (L) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to Vice President Joe Biden as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell (R) looks on during a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington May 28, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES POLITICS)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C), Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toast during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES POLITICS)
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Trump's foreign policy has alarmed longtime allies and spurred criticism at home. A January AP-NORC survey found that 35 percent of Americans approve of the president on foreign policy, while 63 percent disapprove. Trump's slated second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week will provide a fresh opportunity for the president to rebound or fall further, as well as for his Democratic would-be opponents to draw sharp contrasts with his self-proclaimed "America First" diplomacy.

But that doesn't mean that Democrats, who are sorting through the most diverse and wide-open primary field in a generation, will warm to a Biden campaign focused on foreign policy.

"He's got the experience, but I don't want him to run," said Julie Neff, of Ankeny, Iowa, home to the nation's first caucus. "I would vote for a ticket that promised to put Biden in the Cabinet, like as secretary of state."

Biden's potential 2020 rivals are working to build their own foreign policy credentials, even if they've yet to spend a lot of time touting them to voters. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren this month proposed legislation that would prevent the United States from using nuclear weapons as a first-strike option, saying she wants to "reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation." Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has helped lead the charge on Capitol Hill to extricate the nation from the violent civil war in Yemen.

Yet Democratic candidates have generally avoided specifics when criticizing Trump's foreign policy, in part because voters often press them on other topics.

In a series of Harris town halls in South Carolina and New Hampshire — her first events in both states as a declared candidate — voters did not question her on foreign policy, instead focusing on a range of domestic issues including health care, education and labor.

Likewise, on her first campaign trip to Iowa on Saturday, Harris touched only lightly on the need for stronger relations with allies, though in the context of improving markets for agricultural exports. And only when asked by reporters did Harris take up the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, despite speaking earlier in the day at a meeting of Latino and Asian activists in Des Moines.

Even then, Harris stopped short of suggesting how to get U.S. aid, now being blocked by the Venezuelan military, into the country.

"We need to take it very seriously," she said. "But I don't know that at this point we need to, and I would not condone, military action at this point."

Because the campaign season is just beginning, Democratic candidates will have plenty of opportunity to build out their foreign policy agendas. Warren, who delivered a major speech on global affairs last year, aligned herself with Trump's use of "diplomatic pressure" in recognizing a new interim president of Venezuela before criticizing his "saber-rattling" during an interview last week with the liberal Pod Save America. Sanders, for his part, recently declined when asked by Univision to urge socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step aside in favor of new leadership.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a prominent foreign policy voice who's pushed alongside Sanders to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, urged his colleagues running for president to make foreign policy "a wedge issue."

"I think he's deeply vulnerable on national security," Murphy said of Trump in a recent interview. "The national security gap has always been a huge liability for Democrats, and Trump's mishandling of foreign crisis after foreign crisis gives us an opportunity to eliminate that gap."

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