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Thoughts on the Final Debate

October 26, 2012

The final presidential debate of 2012 saw President Obama and Governor Romney met in a duel that was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but in which both men were content to return the emphasis onto domestic affairs. The debate was expected to favour Obama, with its emphasis on international affairs, and following his underwhelming performance in the first debate, the president has found himself having to make up a great deal of lost ground in an attempt to reverse a trend that has seen support ebb away in favour of his Republican rival.

Having been president for the past four years, Obama was clearly far more experienced in foreign policy heading into the debate and his tactic was to stress his credentials in this areas, to highlight Mitt Romney’s inexperience, and, if possible, suggest that his Republican challenger was little more than a warmonger, too eager to plunge the United States into costly and unnecessary foreign interventions.

The debate opened promisingly, with a direct, if rambling question on Libya and the security failings that led to the death of the US ambassador. Not without reason the president was on the defensive throughout the first third of the debate, as the attention remained focused upon a litany of topics that questioned his leadership over the past four years.

In such circumstances it is possible to discern the president’s ill-concealed ire at being so challenged. He would not be the first president to live in a bubble of Yes-Men, ill prepared to speak truth to power. Unlike most presidents, however, Obama doesn’t have the life experience to conceal his frustration when his opinion is brought into question. Rather than stress the challenges, promote the successes, and seek to present a coherent policy with which to address the coming years, Obama instead sought to demean his opponent and singularly failed to present a strategy for a second term. Governor Romney was forced to remind the president that personal attacks were no substitute for a plan of action.

The president, as expected, drew early and repeated distinctions between his four years of experience in dealing with foreign policy and Governor Romney’s lack of international dealings. There was nothing subtle about this approach and it was one in a series of touches that somehow made Obama appear small, defensive, and petty. He did not necessarily need to stress the fact that he had been president, presumably most viewers realised this. One of the most remarked upon moments came when the President rebuked Romney for lamenting the current size of the US navy, which he claimed was at its most sparse since World War One. The President launched a cutting and facetious attack, reminding the Governor that things had changed since 1918 and that no one used horses and bayonets anymore. Except, of course, that they do. The US has engaged in horseback riding in Afghanistan and only this summer a British soldier was honoured for his bravery in leading a bayonet charge against the Taliban forces.

And then, bizarrely for a debate intended to focus on foreign policy, conversation switched to domestic affairs, as the President sought to drag the focus away from issues such as Benghazi and the whole ‘maybe we are, maybe we aren’t’ negotiating with Iran debacle. In the midst of a foreign policy debate, Obama managed to introduce a discussion about the importance of teachers, causing the moderator to note, “I think we can all agree we love teachers.” No doubt a few union votes were shored up in this exchange.

A particularly telling moment arose when the President intoned that in his first term, too much time had been spent ‘nation building’ in other countries and not enough at home, something he planned to alter in a second term. This suggestion of a pivot to a domestic agenda in a second term is reminiscent of George H. W. Bush’s failed tactic in 1992. American presidents have traditionally gone on to be more, not less, internationalist in a second term as they seek to establish a legacy as a statesman. Obama’s suggestion, therefore, appears to replicate Bush snr.’s failed approach and runs counter to expectation and precedent.

Surprises on the night included the lack of real attention to events in Libya, on which Romney really should have skewered the president, and on the suggestion in the New York Times that the administration has been engaged in secret talks with Iran on nuclear weapons. That the president was able to get away with a simple denial of this story was remarkable, as it implies that either a) the New York Times made up a story, b) an administration official lied to the paper to plant a story 36 hours before the final presidential debate, or c) the White House is lying about a true story.

If Libya and Iran got away relatively lightly, the same cannot be said for China. The President again got in a few low blows about the Governor’s investments and apparent preference for outsourcing, but both were harsh on the rising world power. Obama quickly pivoted to address China in a question that sought to consider the gravest threat to US national security, whilst Romney insisted that the United States was already engaged in a secret trade war with China.

Over the course of 90 minutes the conversation turned heated, comical, and robust. It was never anything other than fascinating. Both men sought to portray themselves as being capable of leading the United States for the next four years. But neither man was without flaws. Obama had a weak start and was stronger once he could pivot conversation to the domestic linkages. Romney was not as strong on specifics and numbers (a failing of most challengers) but exuded confidence and, vitally, appeared the president’s equal in many regards, passing ‘the commander in chief,’ test. In their closing remarks both men addressed the American people directly. Obama appeared earnest, but his habit of waging his finger in the face of voters may not have gone down well.

Romney expressed his optimism and excitement about the years ahead. He has clearly been studying Ronald Reagan’s performances and is seeking to tap into the natural confidence that the Gipper expressed over thirty years ago. Vitally, he specifically asked Americans for their vote. Such details may be seen as lacking in importance, but in an election that appears increasingly likely to be decided by a few hundred thousand votes in Ohio, they could prove pivotal. Early polling appeared to give Obama an edge, but Romney was still standing at the end of the night as the president’s equal and clearly eager to take his argument to the country in the 13 days that remain until Election Day.

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