Abrams highlights foreign policy in pursuit of VP nomination

With an eye on the Democratic nomination for vice president, Stacey Abrams has tried to lay out a vision for foreign policy, addressing what many observers would perceive as a weak spot on her resume. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

With an eye on the Democratic nomination for vice president, Stacey Abrams has tried to lay out a vision for foreign policy, addressing what many observers would perceive as a weak spot on her resume. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

No potential Democratic nominee for vice president has jockeyed more publicly for the position than Stacey Abrams. And now the former Georgia legislator is trying to shore up one of her biggest perceived weaknesses — foreign policy — as Joe Biden nears his decision.

She published an article in a trade journal this month laying out her foreign policy vision. Her allies and aides are emphasizing her overseas work. And her most recent book, to be released in June, includes a sharp focus on the threat of authoritarianism around the globe.

It’s the latest phase of Abrams’ extraordinarily candid effort to persuade Biden to select her for the No. 2 spot, flipping the script of potential running mates who usually sidestep public talk of a promotion while working behind the scenes to do just that.

Even as Abrams focuses on foreign affairs, the Georgia Democrat is also keeping one eye on a singularly domestic matter: another campaign against Gov. Brian Kemp, a rematch that's seen by her allies as a near certainty in 2022 if Biden passes her over this summer.

Abrams is making her direct case to be vice president in all manner of outlets — on daytime talk shows and late-night TVpodcasts and magazines, national outlets and hyperlocal publications. She and her aides say she's following one of her hallmark principles: answering questions forthrightly.

“As a young black girl growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if I didn’t speak up for myself, no one else would,” she said on “Meet the Press.” “My mission is to say out loud, if I’m asked the question, ‘Yes, I would be willing to serve.’”

Biden, the 78-year-old presumptive Democratic nominee, made a highly publicized vow to pick a woman to run at his side, and Abrams has long been seen as a potential candidate, albeit one perhaps in a tier below a trio of his former rivals: U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

March 1, 2020 Selma: Joe Biden, Former United States Vice-President and Democrat candidate for President, pays compliments to former candidate for governor Stacey Abrams while speaking at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church during Selma's re-enactment of Bloody Sunday on Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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The small orbit of potential picks also includes two other Georgia Democrats: Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was Biden's most prominent early supporter in the state.


The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated Abrams’ chances, putting a premium on experience as her detractors point out that her highest elected office was leader of the Democratic minority in the Georgia House.

That's exposed her to criticism from both sides of the aisle that she's nakedly pursuing a job that she's not likely to get. President Donald Trump dismissed her chances in a recent interview, and Georgia Republicans scoff at the possibility.

“Abrams is about as qualified to run the country as I am to be the chief executive of Chick-fil-A — and I’ve visited dozens,” said Brandon Phillips, the former head of Trump’s Georgia campaign.

“She’s embarrassing herself with the way she continues to beg for the pick,” Phillips said. “There may be a Georgian on the ticket to help make Biden more interesting, but it won’t be Abrams.”

But her supporters say that Abrams, who has planned to run for national office since her teenage years, has steadily built up her foreign policy skill set, even if her work in the state Legislature was primarily on voting rights and other Georgia-based issues.

They point to her travels to Israel, South Korea and Taiwan to forge ties with foreign leaders long before she became one of her party’s most well-known figures, and her early involvement in international fellowships that took her around the globe.

Gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp participate in their only debate at the Georgia Public Broadcasting Studios in Atlanta. A second debate was scheduled but was canceled by Brain Kemp. The cancellation was due to President Donald Trump choosing to campaign for Kemp during the scheduled time of the debate.

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One of the primary forces behind that drive was Will Dobson, a journalist and author specializing in international affairs who met Abrams in 1994 when both were participants in the Truman Scholarship program while in college. Shortly after she graduated, the two went to lunch to discuss her future.

“I told her that if you’re really thinking about being a leader in a national sense, international affairs isn’t something you could ignore. This is a part of twin expertise you’ll need to have,” said Dobson, who is now the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

As Abrams entered the public realm, she made 15 visits to foreign countries since 2000 for trips linked to foreign policy work, according to a log of her travel provided by an aide. They include speeches last year at Oxford Union in the United Kingdom and the Bilderberg Conference in Switzerland, as well as travel through international fellowships.

And while in the state Legislature, her aides note that Abrams worked with 16 consulates in Atlanta, including a recent meeting with South Korea’s consul general to discuss the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Her allies note that she also addressed both the Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House — two of the premier foreign policy think tanks — in the past year.

“The thing about Stacey is that she’s thoughtful and intentional in everything she does,” said Dobson said. “Her interest in the world beyond the U.S. borders is no different.”

‘Trusted and empowered’

A strong acumen for foreign policy is viewed as essential for any Biden running mate. Though the former vice president has a deep background in international affairs, he would be the oldest president in U.S. history if he’s elected, and anyone he selects must be seen as a potential successor.

Then-President Barack Obama laughing with Vice President Joe Biden. Photo by Anna Wilding

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Many vice presidents have taken more assertive roles in foreign policy since Jimmy Carter’s term in the White House, when he granted Walter Mondale new privileges such as unfettered access to intelligence briefings and invitations to weekly foreign policy breakfasts.

And Biden played a prominent role in President Barack Obama's overseas agenda, often credited with offering a skeptical voice about some of the administration's foreign policy priorities.

The vice president’s influence as a major power player in Washington and beyond is only likely to grow, said Jonathan Masters, a deputy editor at the Council of Foreign Relations.

“Today, given the extraordinary global demands on any modern White House, VPs can and should be trusted and empowered to take on some of the administration’s top domestic and foreign policy priorities,” he said. “I think we’ve seen that and will continue to see it.”

Abrams recently outlined her vision in Foreign Affairs, calling upon leaders to "reclaim the United States' standing in the world by restoring our democracy to its full operating force and reentering the global arena as a true leader of nations."

The piece drew praise from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said Abrams "makes the case for renewing" American global leadership and the strength of democracy in the years ahead.

‘Classic Stacey’

When she lays out her argument for the job, however, Abrams is far more likely to highlight the approach she used to build momentum behind her 2018 campaign: voter enthusiasm.

In interviews, she casts herself as a candidate who can help Biden by mobilizing voters much like she did in the midterm, when a surge of Latino and African American supporters helped her almost force a runoff against Kemp.

The group she built after that defeat, Fair Fight, has become a fundraising juggernaut that juggles a national focus on voting rights with more parochial Georgia-based interests. It launched TV ads that criticized Kemp's budget priorities and sent contributions to supportive local Democratic candidates.

Abrams, too, has remained involved in Georgia politics, a sign that her ambitions to run for governor aren’t nearly forgotten. She’s endorsed several legislative contenders and has frequently criticized Kemp’s decisions, whether they be his support for new abortion limits last year or his move to relax coronavirus restrictions last month.

November 17, 2018 Atlanta - Brian Kemp walks in before a press conference at The Georgia State Capitol the day after Stacey Abrams ended her campaign on Saturday, November 17, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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Some Georgia Republicans say the signal can’t be clearer.

“This push for VP is more a part of her long-term strategy. I just don’t see a creature of Washington like Biden reaching down and picking someone who has not been elected to statewide office,” said former state Rep. Ed Lindsey, a Republican who served with Abrams in the Legislature.

“Those of us who do know her should not be at all surprised about how she’s going about this. She’s very upfront and honest about it,” he added of her blunt approach. “Whether it works or not is another matter, but this is classic Stacey.”

Her close friends warn not to downplay Abrams’ chances at joining Biden’s ticket. Al Williams, a Democratic state lawmaker who was an important ally of Abrams’ in the Georgia House, said Biden would make a “terrible mistake” to pass her over.

“When folks talk about preparation, we elected a fellow who never ran anything but bankrupt companies for president,” said Williams, who recalled testy conversations in the state Capitol between Abrams and her adversaries.

“She brings a natural intellect to the table,” Williams said. “As someone who has sat beside her for years, I can say this: I’m not the least bit concerned about Stacey Abrams going to talk to (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong Un. She can handle it.”