Obama, Romney face off on foreign policy but divert to domestic issues in final debate
In what seemed at times to be a reversal of their roles in the first debate, President Barack Obama went on the attack Monday night and defended his record while GOP challenger Mitt Romney took a less aggressive approach as he sought to reassure viewers that he would be a trustworthy president.
The strategic aims of the two candidates during their third and final debate seemed to differ: Obama wanted to come across as a strong and decisive leader while Romney, although sharply critical of some Obama policies, made an effort to soften his own demeanor -- perhaps partly to appeal to women voters.
Trying to achieve those goals, both candidates intentionally veered off the Florida debate's intended focus on foreign policy. Obama and Romney managed repeatedly to shift to domestic territory – sparring over such familiar issues as the federal deficit, tax cuts, jobs and the auto bailout. Such maneuvers prompted moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS to keep redirecting their attention back to international issues.
Obama went on the attack early, accusing Romney of “sending mixed messages” when he sought to outline a foreign policy strategy that has been “all over the map.” The president denounced Romney’s tough talk about Russia as Cold War rhetoric that did not reflect today’s realities.
Romney showed a different strategy by agreeing with Obama on some overarching goals and at times opting not to jab back on every point. Instead, Romney delivered arguably one of his best lines when he observed that “attacking me is not an agenda.”
Romney argued for a “peace through strength” policy that requires bolstering the still-weak U.S. economy and maintaining a strong military. He accused Obama of making America vulnerable by leading from behind rather than offering true world leadership.
Early on, Obama took aim at what he said was $2 trillion in additional military spending over a decade that Romney had proposed. When Romney repeated his assertion that the U.S. Navy is down to fewer ships than it had in 1917, Obama countered with one of his more memorable lines. Compared to that era, he quipped, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama went on to emphasize that military equipment and strategy had changed dramatically since World War I.
While Romney recognized the administration’s success in the special-forces operation that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, Romney said this country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He argued that the nation had to foster economic opportunities and democracy to achieve longer-term stability in the region.
"We must have a comprehensive strategy to reject this kind of extremism" that has arisen in the aftermath, Romney said. "This is a region in tumult."
Post-debate polls favored Obama
Several commentators gave Obama an edge in the debate on points scored, although some credited Romney with projecting a calmer, reassuring demeanor on a night – as the baseball playoff Game 7 and Monday Night football games were played – when the debate’s viewership may have been composed of an unusually high percentage of women.
An instant poll by CBS found that 64 percent of respondents named Obama the winner while 36 percent chose Romney. CNN's post-debate poll was less decisive, although participants still viewed Obama as the stronger debater: 48 percent favored Obama's performance, compared to 40 percent for Romney. More telling, however, may have been their other accessments: 59 percent thought Obama performed better than expected, compared to 44 percent who said the same about Romney.
About a half hour into the 90-minute debate, both Romney and Obama managed to divert the topic to the economy and argued about their contrasting plans on budget and tax questions, health care, education and other domestic issues for nearly 15 minutes.
At one point, Obama accused Romney of supporting a managed bankruptcy policy that would have weakened the U.S. auto industry and allowed the Chinese to export more cars to this country. Romney countered: “I’m a son of Detroit ... I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.”
But moderator Schieffer eventually steered the debate back to topic. As the trio sat at a roundtable at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Schieffer tried to draw out the policy differences between Obama and Romney, while both candidates sought to forcefully argue their positions.
In many ways, the two candidates are similar on big foreign policy issues, differing in the nuances – but not so much on the major goals – of blocking Iranian nuclear development, withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and managing U.S. economic and foreign relations with China and Russia.
Questioned about the uprisings and regime change in Egypt, Romney said he did not differ with Obama's central strategy, but he offered the criticism, "I wish that we had had a better vision of the future."
Both Obama and Romney made it clear that they believe a key component of an effective foreign policy is keeping the American economy strong -- although Romney thinks it is a lot weaker than Obama asserted. “I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home,” Romney said.
Trying to portray Romney as indecisive, Obama criticized several policy statements that his GOP opponent has made during the campaign; for example, saying Russia was the nation's top geopolitical rival. "The Cold War's been over for 20 years," Obama said. "It seems you want the foreign policy of the 1980s."
Romney countered that he would not “wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or [Vladimir] Putin and I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election.’ After the election, he’ll get more backbone.”
Political analysts said Romney’s top challenge in the foreign policy debate was mainly to portray himself as trustworthy in international affairs, as well as a leader – strong but not “trigger-happy.” Recent polls have shown Obama with an edge on the question of how trustworthy he is as a leader.
Fact checkers focus on defense claims
Romney’s most memorable complaint was arguably his assertion that the number of ships in the U.S. Navy “is smaller now than at any time since 1917.” According to the nonpartisan Politifact, the number of ships has declined – but the drop took place before Obama took office. Under the president, “the number of ships has risen slightly under Obama,” Politifact said.
Politifact also said that Obama's jabs at Romney regarding his previous opposition to trade sanctions against China were "mostly true." Politifact said the same about Romney's assertion that Obama "said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel."
The New York Times' fact-checkers took issue with Romney's description of how he would finance added defense spending: “We do it by getting — by reducing spending in a whole series of programs. By the way, No. 1, I get rid of ‘Obamacare.’ ”
More than 50 million Americans were estimated to have seen the debate, although many St. Louis Cardinal and San Francisco Giant fans missed part of the debate because they watched Game 7 of the National League championship series, which ended with a Cardinals loss.
A few hours before the debate, a CBS News poll found that Obama had a significant edge over Romney, 50 percent to 41 percent, on the question of who would do a better job on foreign policy and national security.
But there were concerns about international issues. Asked about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 59 percent said this country should not be militarily involved there; only 31 percent said the U.S. is doing the right thing there.
On Iran, 52 percent said its weapons program can be contained by diplomatic means; 22 percent said military action is required; and 17 percent said Iran is not a threat.
Political reaction follows party lines
True to form, Republican and Democratic officials and campaign advisers tended to react to the debates in a partisan manner.
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a statement that Romney “represents a decisive break with the current administration's policies, and as he outlined tonight, he has a clear plan to renew America's influence around the world.”
Blunt contended that Obama “has shown a willingness to slash our military, weaken our global alliances, and rack up more than $16 trillion in debt, further weakening our national security.”
But U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, praised the president's performance and described Romney’s world view as “reckless, reactionary and wrong.”
“Tonight, the American people saw a commander-in-chief who leads with strength, vision and clarity," Clay said in a statement. "President Obama has struck back against those who have attacked us, he has ended the war in Iraq, and he is bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. By any measure, he has made us stronger and he has kept the American people safe."
On the opposite side, Missouri Republican Party chairman David Cole argued that Romney “demonstrated this evening that he will provide the leadership and vision to strengthen America’s role in the world, protect our interests, and promote our ideals.”
Cole added: “Gov. Romney made it clear that our allies will be able to count on us and that we will always have the resolve to defeat our enemies. In contrast to President Obama’s combative tone, Romney showed that he will be a serious and steady leader—making America stronger at home and abroad.”
Academic experts cite different aims in debate
While politicians’ reaction to the debate tended to polarize – as usual – along party lines, academic experts had more nuanced views of the discussion.
Marvin Overby, a political science professor at he University of Missouri-Columbia, said he thought the overall result was “fairly close” and “certainly a much more civil debate than last week’s town hall forum.”
On the big issues of foreign policy, Overby said in an interview, “it seems that their disagreements are more rhetorical than real. There wasn’t as much chest-thumping as we saw in the second debate.”
Partly for that reason, Overby said, it seemed that “both of them took every opportunity to turn from foreign policy to domestic issues” during the debate.
He thinks Romney may have chosen a relatively low-key strategy because – with more men likely drawn to the baseball and football games Monday evening – “there could have been a disproportionate number of women watching.”
Romney’s “first answer talked about making the Middle East a place where women could prosper more” – a way to help him “address the gender gap” in which surveys show Obama ahead among likely women voters.
Eric R. Morris, an assistant professor of communications and debate expert at Missouri State University in Springfield, said Obama “was a little bit stronger” in achieving his main objective in the debate: “to call into question whether Romney, under pressure, would make the right foreign policy judgments.”
In an interview, Morris said Romney’s goal “was more to suggest that Obama’s missteps have cause our foreign relations to be worse than might otherwise have been the case. I think he would have been better on that if there have been a recent misstep” by Obama.
That’s why Morris thought it was “really interesting” that Romney had chosen not to press hard on the Obama administration’s handling of the attack against American diplomats in Libya – during which there has been confusion about the nature of the attack and how best to respond to it.
Mitchell S. McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the format of the debate “seemed to work in favor of Obama and against Romney.”
In a statement, McKinney said the more aggressive stance Romney had taken in the first two debates “was more subdued tonight by the intimate environment of this roundtable chat. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s ‘professorial’ style seemed more suited to this more deliberative discussion.”
McKinney said he thought Romney was “at his strongest …. when discussing jobs and the economy.” The GOP challenger, he observed, “agreed with the President far more often than we heard in the first two debates – perhaps more agreement at any point throughout this long campaign.”
Even though Obama may have won on points, McKinney contends that the final debate “will not change this tied race. With two weeks until the election, both campaigns will now move on to wage their battle for votes in the air (their TV ads) and on the ground (their get out the vote efforts especially in the battleground states)."
David Romano, associate professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University, observed, "Really I don't see a substantively different policy between them on Syria, Libya Iran, Israel, Pakistan or Afghanistan. President Obama seemed more confident and in command of the issues, but that's a stylistic difference rather than a substantive one."
"President Obama and Gov. Romney's views on the Middle East are not very different," Romano said. " Both agree on support of the Arab Spring movements for democracy, although neither mentioned how harshly these were suppressed in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other allies we continue to support."
Regarding sanctions on Iran, Romano said, "they have essentially the same policy as well, with Romney implying that he would have been quicker to impose harsher sanctions and Obama pointing out that such sanctions require buy-in from allies in Europe and the rest of the world, which his administration secured. Both view a military strike on Iran as an absolute last resort."
Credited Photos © 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.
For stories about the issues and candidates in this election from St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon, visit BeyondNovember.org. For a collection of Beacon stories, visit our 2012 election page.