US2012 debate No 3: The final battle goes to Obama, but is it enough?

By J Brooks Spector 23 October 2012

President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney met in their final debate before the election in two weeks. The debate was supposed to focus like a laser on foreign policy and international security; but, at every chance there was, the two candidates looked for ways to shift the discussion away from foreign policy and back to domestic issues. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, met in their third debate, one that was supposed to focus exclusively on foreign affairs. The candidates nevertheless took every opportunity to tack back to domestic issues. This was in part because polls have consistently demonstrated that the national economy is the preeminent issue in the minds of voters – and in part because Mitt Romney so frequently fell back on the embrace of general agreement with the president on many of the specific points of foreign policy.

A word cloud of Romney’s comments might well have made the phrase “I agree” into the most visible words in that graphic. Many commentators already described this tactic as more than a little startling.

Mitt Romney’s best moments seemed to come, surprisingly, when he took shots at the president from the left side of the political continuum, insisting that “America can’t kill its way to peace” and advocating more “nation building” spending in the Middle East as the best way forward in the wake of the uncertainties of the post-Arab Spring world. He stayed tough on China, however. In Obama’s case, his best moments seemed to be when he pushed back forcibly – even acerbically – on Romney’s charge of American military weakness, such as his assertion that the US Navy is now at its weakest point since World War I. Obama’s response was that the ship numbers are smaller – but the power of those weapons systems are much greater than before.

The award for the snarkiest moment of the night – maybe even the entire campaign – came when Obama retorted, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines…. So the question is not a game of Battleship where we are counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities?” This was a sharp moment that gave cheer to Obama partisans but it is also possible it may cut against him in Virginia, a state with a large naval ship building industry, if his comments are interpreted as the declining need to build more ships. Virginia, a key battleground states in contention in this election, is a likely key to a winning margin.

In the immediate aftermath of this debate, commentators seemed united in saying that the power of incumbency – and the impact of actually being commander in chief and getting all those daily security briefings for the past four years – had given this final debate to Barack Obama on points, but not by a TKO, let alone a clear knock-out. Veteran White House advisor David Gergen, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, noted Obama has now had strong back-to-back debates.

Early polling of those who watched the debate found Obama beat back the challenger 48-40%. Traditionally, a larger number of Republicans, proportionally, watch presidential debates than do Democrats. Moreover, 59% said Obama did better than they expected him to do. This sample also gave the president a narrow victory on the question of who handled himself better in the debate. Interestingly, this same sample said both candidates were prepared to handle the pressures and stresses of office – a question that is something of a stand-in for whether a candidate is ready for the Oval Office. On this latter question, 63% gave a thumbs-up for Obama and 60% for the challenger. Score that last point something of a draw – making it a bit of a plus for a challenger. Few of the voters who watched the debate said their likely vote was likely to have been changed from this debate.

Both candidates went into overdrive during the 90-minute session, turning the encounter away from the finer details of the “crippling sanctions” against Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a “genocide inciter”, nation building in Egypt and China as a “currency manipulator” and back towards their old reliables, domestic economic issues.

As they moved into their summations, Obama argued his opponent would take the country back to the mistakes of the Bush administration. In contrast, he argued a second Obama administration would work on rebuilding the country’s industrial base, stem the outsourcing of jobs, improve the country’s educational quality and worker retraining for new challenges, gain control over the nation’s energy consumption by increasing domestic energy production and building future energy sources. All the while cutting overall spending and asking the wealthy to pay a bit more. “After a decade of war,” the president said, the US needs “to do some nation building at home too.”

For his part, Romney said he remained excited about prospects for nation. He wants to grow the nation’s take-home pay, create 12 million new jobs, get people off food stamps and work across the partisan aisle even as the capital is “broken”. Summing up, Romney’s final peroration – in a reach back through Manifest Destiny and to American exceptionalism straight back to William Bradford’s “Shining City Upon a Hill” sermon of 1631 – Romney called America the hope the world and added that he wanted to receive the torch from the greatest generation – a reference to the generation that had won World War II.

And the “take aways” on foreign policy? In keeping with scoring that said the president did better overall, Romney seemed to struggle in finding space between himself and the president on the mix of policies needed to confront Iran in dissuading it from future nuclear weapons development (if, indeed, it is going down that path). Both spoke strongly in favour of those crippling sanctions. Romney pushed harder on the point that it would have been better to have kept some troops in Iraq and that he would be even more forceful in support of Israel.

To this writer at least, Romney seemed least cogent as he continued to harp on that mythic Obama apology tour for America’s failings, and in trying to explain how he would find the money to increase defence spending. Obama scored when he spoke movingly about his visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims when he first ran for the presidency – in contrast to Romney’s recent trip to that nation in the company of potential campaign funders.

Similarly high on the hard to swallow scale was Romney’s repetition that the president is arbitrarily and dangerously cutting military spending – planned cuts that actually evolve from the so-called “sequestration” of all government spending, including defence, that is part of that awkward presidential-congressional agreement for rigid spending cuts if a longer-term budget agreement can not be achieved.

However, what this debate has not done, at least on the face of the initial evidence from instant polling and the snap judgments of the punditocracy, is to reverse fully the slow momentum Romney gained from his effectiveness in their first debate. What may matter most from this series of debates, rather than how voters reacted to the initial broadcasts, will be two things: First, how well the comments from all of these debates can be spun into winning ads in the final two weeks of this exhausting campaign in the three most important battleground states – Virginia, Florida and Ohio. Second, will be the trend lines from the final sets of economic reports due out in the time between this debate and Election Day on 6 November. The election may well be Obama’s to lose, but just as clearly it remains Mitt Romney’s to win. At moment at least, this one is going to go right to the wire. DM

Read more:

“Obama and Romney Bristle From Start Over Foreign Policy,” on the New York Times

“Obama keeps Romney on his heels in last debate,” on The Washington Post

“Foreign policy fireworks: Face-off before election,” on the AP

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President  Barack Obama shake hands at the conclusion of the final U.S.  presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012.  Obviously, Colgate won. REUTERS/Jason Reed



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