Normally, the challenger uses the debate to pick fights with the incumbent. The third US presidential debate was different. Mitt Romney, the challenger, tried to minimise his differences with President Barack Obama on foreign policy. Obama, the incumbent, tried to maximise his differences with Romney. This means that both sides agreed that Obama’s foreign policies have been largely successful.
At one point, Obama said that Romney wanted “to do the same things we did but he says it louder”. That was about right.
Obama also called Romney’s foreign policy “reckless and wrong and all over the map”. For American voters, that brings to mind Romney’s record of flip-flops on domestic as well as foreign policy issues. Obama’s most serious charge was that Romney wants to go “back to Bush”. It was a way of warning that Romney might get the US into another war in the Middle East, in Syria or Iran. That’s a devastating charge to American voters who are war-weary, especially women voters.
Obama controlled this debate, much as Romney controlled the first debate. Obama’s problem: foreign policy does not matter to voters as much as jobs and the economy.
Obama got off the two best lines of the debate. One was clearly prepared in advance. He charged that Romney “has the foreign policy of the ’80s, the social policies of the ’50s and the economic policies of the ’20s”. The other was apparently spontaneous. When Romney criticised cuts in the number of ships in the US Navy, Obama responded that times have changed. “We have fewer ships, but we also have fewer horses and fewer bayonets.”
Romney’s main charge was that “nowhere is America’s influence stronger in the world today” than it was four years ago. He’s certainly correct that many people overseas, like many Americans, express disappointment in Obama’s performance. Obama’s failure to give stronger support to Iranian protesters, for example, and his failure to make any headway with a Middle East peace process. But it would be hard to argue that the United States has less influence under Obama than it had under George W Bush, who was widely resented in the world for his interventionist policies. The symbol of the world’s relief: the fact that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the very beginning of his term, not at the end.
Both candidates used every opportunity they could to switch the subject back to the economy and jobs. They both argued that keeping the US economy strong was an essential component of US power in the world. Obama highlighted the point neatly when he argued that it is time for the US to “do nation-building here at home,” rather than in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bill Schneider is a Resident Fellow at Third Way, a Washington think tank. Professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University.