President Barack Obama effectively harnessed the advantage of the incumbency in the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney here last night, accusing him of espousing positions that are “wrong and reckless”. Looking him in the eye, the president said: “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong”.
For Mr Romney, who seemed less at ease than in the previous two face-offs and more than once found himself agreeing with stances taken by the president, it was a night mostly of avoiding howlers in an area of American leadership on which he is necessarily less experienced. Burnish his candidacy, however, he probably did not.
If Mr Obama was the fiercer of the two it was because his task was more urgent – to stem the recent shift in the polls towards his foe including in some key battleground states. Mocking a lament from Mr Romney that the US Navy is down to 285 ships from the usual level of 300, he fired: “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets”. The implication was that his rival was out of date and ignorant of the power of new military technology.
The president also jabbed Mr Romney for a past remark suggesting that Russia – not the terror networks – was America’s greatest “geopolitical foe”. “The Cold War has been over for 20 years,” Mr Obama said bluntly looking across the small debate table at the former Massachusetts governor. “When it comes to your foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s.”
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Mr Romney shot back in one of his crisper moments. “Attacking me is not how we deal with the challenges of the Middle East.” The governor repeatedly contended that after four years in office the president had accumulated a failed record on foreign policy, noting in particular that tumult that persists in parts of the Arab World, that al-Qa’ida remains a threat and Iran is still on course to attain a nuclear capability.
Post-debate instant polling by US news organisations was lopsided in the president’s favour. CBS News, whose news anchor Bob Schieffer was the evening’s moderator, saw 53 per cent declaring Mr Obama the winner versus just 23 per cent for Mr Romney. A CNN snap poll gave it to the president by an eight-point margin. But after an encounter that was less gripping and lacked the fireworks of the last one, the impact on the race may be limited.
Not a surprise was the frequency with which both men turned the conversation back repeatedly to the domestic front. For Mr Romney it was the flailing economic economy. For Mr Obama it was his commitment to returning dollars to investing at home, with an emphasis on education. “I think the American people recognise that after a decade of war it’s time to do some nation building here at home,” Mr Obama said, underlining what said had been promises kept: concluding the war in Iraq and setting an end date for the one in Afghanistan.
But Mr Obama took full opportunity in this last debate to tie his opponent to the previous administration. “Both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment,” he said.
Not predicted was the absence of any fresh attack on Mr Obama for the shifting explanations of what lay behind the 11 September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. “I think Mr Romney was trying to be informative tonight rather than combative,” explained John Sununu, a campaign co-chair and former New Hampshire governor. His candidate’s priority, he said, had been show that he could “connect the pieces” on foreign policy.
Quiet satisfaction was the response, meanwhile, of Obama aides here last night. “We are feeling really good about the president’s performance,” suggested campaign manager Jim Messina. “Mr Romney did not look like a commander-in-chief, he did not pass the test and that is a bad moment for him.”
Mr Romney also allowed the question of General Motors and its bail-out into the conversation, a topic that is never likely to play well for him particularly in the key state of Ohio. When he suggested that he had argued for federal assistance for the company as well as advocating that it be allowed to go through bankruptcy, Mr Obama vigorously objected. “Governor, the people in Detroit don’t forget,” Mr Obama declared.
Back to international affairs, Mr Romney argued Mr Obama had projected weakness upon taking office, resurrecting his claim that he had been an “apologist” for past American policies and had allowed the relationship with Israel to fray. In turn, he argued, foreign foes of the US, including the “mullahs” in Iran had sensed that weakness and taken advantage.
Yet, beyond the rhetoric of Mr Romney, most viewers may have had difficulty divining what differences lie between them on dealing with specific hotspots including Iran and also Syria. “Mr Romney offered his endorsement on just about everything Mr Obama has done,” a spokeswoman for the president, Jen Psaki, suggested later.