President Obama and Mitt Romney have dramatically different leadership styles. The president, a former community organiser, civil rights lawyer and a senator, practices a bottom-up style of leadership. Romney as CEO of Bain Capital, governor of Mass. and President of the 2002 Winter Olympics, believes in the top-down leadership.
They both believe in American exceptionalism, but Obama’s brand of exceptionalism is about the progressive power of the people to change the world from the middle-out, while Romney’s brand flows from the top. This is also reflected in their foreign policy views. Obama supports the emergence of a multi-polar world, while Romney believes America must remain the only superpower in the world.
According to Governor Romney’s foreign policy paper titled “An American century”, he believes, “When America is strong, the world is safer. It is only American power – conceived in the broadest terms – that can provide the foundation for an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies”. Just to be clear, Romney is not talking about Luce’s first American century, but the current 21st century, where other powers like China may be on the rise.
The Obama doctrine is deliberatively circumspect about American power. As EJ Dionne of Washington Post has described it, Obama believes in “a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness”.
These differences in worldview permeate the two candidate’s policies and approach to the world beyond the national borders, and in an increasingly globalised world, impact the domestic issues as well.
In speaking with several key Republicans before the debate, it was obvious they have a clear agenda and plan in the final weeks of the campaign. They want to paint the president as weak and disengaged whose policies not only have not worked, but have invited derision and disrespect on American ideals and greatness. This is a variation of the “no apology” tour that their candidate Mitt Romney has been promoting for several years, which has not really stood the test of the fact-checkers.
When I asked Senator McCain, the former Republican candidate from 2008, about the fact that President Obama’s global approval ratings remain high around the world, according to Pew Research, he seemed visibly upset. He said, “Where did you get that? I have travelled the world. I don’t hear that.”
I clarified that I was simply looking at the polls by a non-partisan firm and comparing them with ratings from four years ago. Senator McCain asserted, “The world respected George Bush then. They don’t respect President Obama.”
It may be too late to start another campaign logo or messaging theme, but the Republicans seem to suggest a variation of the old theme, “Believe in America” because “President Obama seems economically weak at home and not fully respected abroad”.
Yet, during the debate Mitt Romney went on to agree with many, if not all, of the major foreign policy initiatives that the president has put forward on wide ranging issues from Iran, Syria, Libya, Pakistan to China. This may have been partly strategic as Romney moves to the centre.
The Republican candidate seemed to suggest on several key issues that he would not do things differently than President Obama, except he would double down on it more aggressively.
For instance on Libya, the president defended his record: “Now, keep in mind that I and Americans took leadership in organising an international coalition that made sure that we were able to – without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq – liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans. But I think it’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya.”
Romney’s reply to this was to offer a better pathway to the Muslim world, “Well, my strategy’s pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to – to kill them, to take them out of the picture. But my strategy is broader than – than that. That’s – that’s important, of course, but the key that we’re going to have to pursue is a – is a pathway to – to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.”
Likewise on Syria, Governor Romney was asked what he would do differently. “Governor, can I just ask you, would you go beyond what the administration would do? Like, for example, would you put in no-fly zones over Syria?”
His reply seemed to suggest the same course as President Obama, “I don’t – I don’t want to have our military involved in – in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at – at this stage.”
On the issue of disposing Mubarak, the Arab Spring and the democracy movement, the president was asked would he have done things differently now that the situation appears chaotic. He said: “No, I don’t because I think that America has to stand with democracy. The notion that we would have tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square, that is not the kind of American leadership that John F Kennedy talked about 50 years ago.”
Surprisingly, Governor Romney’s reply was rather consistent with the President, “No, I believe, as the president indicated and said at the time, that I supported his – his action there.”
Nation-building at home
On domestic policy, both candidates agree that they need to do nation-building at home, but their approaches are very different. Governor Romney favours a top-down approach, while President Obama an approach that strengthens the middle class, consistent with their leadership style.
President Obama said, “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America. And it is stronger now than when I came into office.”
Governor Romney replied, “But in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job.”
As an incumbent, the president seemed to gain an upper hand, when he tied Romney to the policies of the Republican predecessors, “You know, both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century.”
Democratic strategist and adviser to the president David Plouff and General Wes Clark seemed to suggest that Governor Romney simply folded on a whole host of major foreign policy initiatives.
“Well first of all, the president said a very important thing when he said the Governor has been wrong on lots of things – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and on moving heaven and earth to get Bin Laden. And at a critical moment in Libya, when you’re running to be Commander-in-Chief, you can’t keep changing your positions. Governor Romney appears by the positions he has held to be weak, political, shifting and reckless,” Plouff said.
Dan Senor, Governor Romney’s foreign policy adviser, vehemently disagreed with this claim. Given this was the final debate and with almost two weeks to go to the election, the decision is now in the hands of America’s voting public who may have also noticed that Romney tried to become like Obama – tough and centrist – on foreign policy.
Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.