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Government, Politics & Issues

Obama, Romney face off on foreign policy but divert to domestic issues in final debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2012 - In what seemed at times to be a reversal of their roles in the first debate, President Barack Obama went on the attack Monday night and defended his record while GOP challenger Mitt Romney took a less aggressive approach as he sought to reassure viewers that he would be a trustworthy president.

The strategic aims of the two candidates during their third and final debate seemed to differ: Obama wanted to come across as a strong and decisive leader while Romney, although sharply critical of some Obama policies, made an effort to soften his own demeanor -- perhaps partly to appeal to women voters.

Trying to achieve those goals, both candidates intentionally veered off the Florida debate's intended focus on foreign policy. Obama and Romney managed repeatedly to shift to domestic territory – sparring over such familiar issues as the federal deficit, tax cuts, jobs and the auto bailout. Such maneuvers prompted moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS to keep redirecting their attention back to international issues.

Obama went on the attack early, accusing Romney of “sending mixed messages” when he sought to outline a foreign policy strategy that has been “all over the map.” The president denounced Romney’s tough talk about Russia as Cold War rhetoric that did not reflect today’s realities. 

Romney showed a different strategy by agreeing with Obama on some overarching goals and at times opting not to jab back on every point. Instead, Romney delivered arguably one of his best lines when he observed that “attacking me is not an agenda.”

Romney argued for a “peace through strength” policy that requires bolstering the still-weak U.S. economy and maintaining a strong military. He accused Obama of making America vulnerable by leading from behind rather than offering true world leadership.

Early on, Obama took aim at what he said was $2 trillion in additional military spending over a decade that Romney had proposed. When Romney repeated his assertion that the U.S. Navy is down to fewer ships than it had in 1917, Obama countered with one of his more memorable lines. Compared to that era, he quipped, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama went on to emphasize that military equipment and strategy had changed dramatically since World War I.

While Romney recognized the administration’s success in the special-forces operation that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, Romney said this country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He argued that the nation had to foster economic opportunities and democracy to achieve longer-term stability in the region.

"We must have a comprehensive strategy to reject this kind of extremism" that has arisen in the aftermath, Romney said. "This is a region in tumult."

Post-debate polls favored Obama

Several commentators gave Obama an edge in the debate on points scored, although some credited Romney with projecting a calmer, reassuring demeanor on a night – as the baseball playoff Game 7 and Monday Night football games were played – when the debate’s viewership may have been composed of an unusually high percentage of women.

An instant poll by CBS found that 64 percent of respondents named Obama the winner while 36 percent chose Romney. CNN's post-debate poll was less decisive, although participants still viewed Obama as the stronger debater: 48 percent favored Obama's performance, compared to 40 percent for Romney. More telling, however, may have been their other accessments: 59 percent thought Obama performed better than expected, compared to 44 percent who said the same about Romney.

About a half hour into the 90-minute debate, both Romney and Obama managed to divert the topic to the economy and argued about their contrasting plans on budget and tax questions, health care, education and other domestic issues for nearly 15 minutes.

At one point, Obama accused Romney of supporting a managed bankruptcy policy that would have weakened the U.S. auto industry and allowed the Chinese to export more cars to this country. Romney countered: “I’m a son of Detroit ... I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.”

But moderator Schieffer eventually steered the debate back to topic. As the trio sat at a roundtable at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Schieffer tried to draw out the policy differences between Obama and Romney, while both candidates sought to forcefully argue their positions.

In many ways, the two candidates are similar on big foreign policy issues, differing in the nuances – but not so much on the major goals – of blocking Iranian nuclear development, withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and managing U.S. economic and foreign relations with China and Russia.

Even though Obama may have won on points, McKinney contends that the final debate “will not change this tied race. With two weeks until the election, both campaigns will now move on to wage their battle for votes in the air (their TV ads) and on the ground (their get out the vote efforts especially in the battleground states)."

David Romano, associate professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University, observed, "Really I don't see a substantively different policy between them on Syria, Libya Iran, Israel, Pakistan or Afghanistan. President Obama seemed more confident and in command of the issues, but that's a stylistic difference rather than a substantive one."

"President Obama and Gov. Romney's views on the Middle East are not very different," Romano said. " Both agree on support of the Arab Spring movements for democracy, although neither mentioned how harshly these were suppressed in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other allies we continue to support."

Regarding sanctions on Iran, Romano said, "they have essentially the same policy as well, with Romney implying that he would have been quicker to impose harsher sanctions and Obama pointing out that such sanctions require buy-in from allies in Europe and the rest of the world, which his administration secured. Both view a military strike on Iran as an absolute last resort."

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