President Obama and Governor Romney debate Foreign Policy

On October 22nd, 2012 Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got together for the third and final debate. This debate was billed as a contest of the candidates ideas on foreign policy. Going into this debate I felt the President had the clear advantage because his track record on foreign policy is unassailable in my opinion. What I mean by this is in terms of doing what he said he would do during his campaign. The President has done everything he said he would. He killed Osama Bin Laden, He facilitated the overthrow of Gaddafi, and he drew down the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether you agree with him doing all these things or not, I don’t think it can be disputed that he did what he said he would.


I think this final debate has to be looked at on the aforementioned terms. In the beginning of the debate the President came out looking very energized and comfortable on what is most probably his strong suit. Conversely, I thought Mitt Romney essentially conceded the President’s strength on foreign policy by largely agreeing with him on the biggest points.


Because American foreign policy is largely centered on the Middle East and Africa, much of the debate remained focused on the events happening in Libya, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Egypt.

On Libya it was interesting to see Mitt Romney backtrack from his tried and true critique of the President on the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi. I felt since the cat had already been let out of the bag Governor Romney should have just continued with a full throated critique. He has proven to be his strongest when he deconstructs the president’s record. He started the debate off on the wrong foot by not doing this.


On the other hand, the President was aggressive. He came out by vigorously defending his own foreign policy record and educating the audience on the history of the situation in Libya and some of the nuances of what is going on in that country. Whereas in the first debate this kind of talk made the president seem detached and professorial, in this debate Barack Obama was engaged and it made him look presidential.


On Egypt and Syria the President and Mr. Romney’s positions were largely similar. Essentially Mitt Romney said he had no problem with the President’s approaches on these issues with the exception that he would have done it more and done it earlier.


During the middle of the debate Mitt Romney predictably tried to link American domestic policy to foreign policy saying that we cannot project power if we do not have a strong nation. He fell back on his oft cited 5 point plan to illustrate his point. He insisted that we need to focus on education. He made an interesting (late) reach to the Hispanic community by noting that Central and South American nations could be as big a trading partner as China and that he supported more trade agreements with them. He added that he would balance the budget, and emphasize small business. When asked how he would get the money to support some of his initiatives, including adding extra money to the defense budget. Mitt Romney said he would cut discretionary spending, get rid of Obamacare, examine the government’s budget to look for unnecessary programs to cut, and give medicare duties to the states.


In conclusion, I felt this was the best debate of the three because it was the most civil and therefore the most informative. I felt that Mitt Romney was at a competitive disadvantage in this debate for several reasons. First, as I said before in my opinion the President is unassailable on foreign policy. He has simply done everything he said he would. In addition, the President is…well he’s the President. As a result, on foreign policy more than any other issue he has the advantage of being in charge of the policy and knowing the facts about the policies better than anyone else because he instituted them. This allows Barack Obama to sound presidential simply by stating his accomplishments and educating people about what his going on.


Even more unfortunate for Governor Romney, these are precisely the things in which the President excels. Conversely, foreign policy is probably Mitt Romney’s weakest area of expertise. His goal in this debate was to simply look competent. One thing I noticed about the foreign policy debate is talking about foreign policy is sobering in terms of political discourse. It is sobering because the words that are spoken have clear implications and consequences. It is much more difficult to be loose with the truth when the consequences of dishonest words could mean several people could die. The President used this to his advantage by repeatedly hammering home the point that Governor Romney has not been consistent with his positions. President Obama’s strategy was to paint Romney as a foreign policy novice, by attacking his credibility and labeling his foreign policy prescriptions as “wrong and reckless.”


Mitt Romney’s objective was to link foreign policy to domestic policy and continue his critique of the president’s domestic record in order to make the case that the President’s weak domestic record has translated to a weak America abroad. It was a noble strategy given the aforementioned fact that the ground was steeply slanted against Mitt Romney.  This forced Mitt Romney into some interesting positions. I thought one of the most awkward tactics was Mitt’s insistence on trying to tie the looming “fiscal cliff” or sequestration to the President when the office of the President has nothing to do with it at this point. I did feel that Governor Romney was successful the few times he did critique the president on domestic policy, and I also felt like his closing statement was a little better than Obama’s. Romney’s closing statement struck a hopeful chord while the president had a more grave and practical tone. I also thought the body language of the debate was very interesting when juxtaposed against the body language of the first debate. In this final debate it was Mitt Romney who was looking down and taking notes, while the President was engaged, energized, and very sharp with his points.


When I originally scored this debate I had the president slightly ahead for the duration, and I thought the Mitt Romney evened the debate up with a good final conclusion. However, I have to say that the President definitely had his best showing out of all the three debates and Mitt Romney had his worst showing. I think the reason I call it a draw is because this is exactly what I expected. The president had too many built in advantages in this debate for Romney to really win it. In fact, I think it would have been one of the biggest political upsets if Mitt Romney could actually beat Barack Obama in a foreign policy debate when he is the sitting president with the type of record he has. As a result I cut Mitt Romney some slack in scoring this one.


Mitt Romney had the same weaknesses as he has had throughout the debates. He is best when criticizing the President on domestic policy, however he still has not shown how he would do anything that he professes he can do. He couldn’t competently answer where he would get the money to add to the military budget and he didn’t show how his approach could possibly be any better than the president in foreign policy. As a businessman, Mitt Romney is very good at coming up with politically expedient slogans ie “road to greece”, “4 years closer to a nuclear bomb”, “20 trillion in debt.” The problem is that none of these slogans have any factual basis to back them up once they are analyzed in a critical manner.