Seven years ago, the dominant Democratic narrative explaining the decline in America’s standing in the world was due largely to Republican incompetence in foreign policy matters, with the Iraq War presented as Exhibit A. If Democrats returned to power, it was intimated, the United States would regain its international position. American allies, starting with the Europeans, would fall in line to support U.S. security initiatives; multilateral institutions would work because Democrats would demonstrate their superior negotiating techniques; and when it came to dealing with "difficult" regimes like China or Russia, Democrats would show the “cowboys” in the George W. Bush administration how diplomacy was done.
These arguments resonated with many Americans. Concerns about how Republicans had mishandled U.S. national security contributed to the Democrats retaking control of both houses of Congress in 2006, and, while most voters in 2008 listed the domestic economy as their prime concern, the belief that Barack Obama would be a steadier figure to guide U.S. foreign policy than John McCain helped cement the former's victory.
Democrats had been particularly critical of Bush for his oft-lampooned claim to have gazed into Russian President Vladimir Putin's soul during their first encounter in 2001, a glimpse that helped him decide he could do business with the Russian leader. Critics argued that Bush was undercutting American values by attempting to forge a strategic partnership with Moscow, given Putin's consolidation of his so-called power vertical and his steps to neuter opposition to his rule. But at the same time they argued that the Bush administration’s moves—from leaving the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to proposing a missile defense system for Europe—were needlessly antagonistic of Russia. While the U.S.-Russia relationship was not a central point of the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama team argued that it would be able to pursue more effective cooperation with Russia without compromising American principles.