President Barack Obama kept Mitt Romney on the defensive on foreign policy in their final debate before the election, as his Republican rival worked to criticize the incumbent’s leadership while endorsing most major actions he has taken.
The president sought to portray the former Massachusetts governor as ill-prepared to assume the mantle of commander in chief, branding his statements on international challenges as “all over the map” and his positions “wrong and reckless.”
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong,” Obama, 51, said at the faceoff in Boca Raton, Florida.
From dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and winding down U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan; to managing tensions in Libya, Pakistan and Syria; and the use of unmanned drones to target terrorist suspects, Romney, 65, agreed with the incumbent’s course of action -- even while arguing he would have executed it better. He opened the debate congratulating Obama for killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“He endorsed most of the president’s policies, while trying to suggest that he’d implement them better,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Still, Romney, who sought to present a measured posture in the lone debate focused on international issues, broke with the president on military spending, arguing that defense cuts slated to go into effect in January would endanger security.
“I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts” as part of a deficit-reduction deal reached last year, Romney said. “That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.”
In particular, Romney said a projected reduction in Navy ships would take the service to its lowest level since 1917.
“Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater -- nuclear submarines.” The defense budget, Obama added, is “not a game of Battleship.”
Obama at one point reminded voters that Romney has declared Russia -- not al Qaeda -- as the No. 1 U.S. geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said. Romney didn’t retreat from the statement, arguing that Russia is the top rival to U.S. interests, while he considers Iran “the greatest national security threat we face.”
Instant polls indicated that debate watchers thought Obama won the showdown, and foreign policy analysts said the president appeared more in command of the topics than his rival.
Obama “repeatedly projected an air of confidence, strength, decisiveness” on foreign policy, while Romney’s “moments of strength were when he was able to take the discussion to the economy and jobs and domestic policy,” said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri.
While Romney didn’t have “flubs or gaffes,” he said, the Republican “did not articulate clear differences” between his policies as compared with the current administration.
That may have been by design. Romney’s allies argued afterward that their candidate had come across as presidential, and some observers said the Republican’s goal appeared to have been softening his image.
“For Obama, it was landing as many punches as he could across a wide array of issues and obviously defending his own foreign policy record,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“For Romney, it was frankly trying to close the gender gap and appear as a peacemaker” to women voters by following “in the Reagan tradition -- favoring a strong military, but otherwise, not trying to appear too hawkish,” he said.
Both candidates took opportunities to turn the focus to the domestic issues driving the campaign during its final two weeks. The candidates met at Lynn University as public polls show a tightening race, with Obama and Romney tied or in close competition nationally and in about nine competitive states.
“In order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong,” Romney said. “You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You can’t have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate.”
As they did in the Oct. 16 debate in Hempstead, New York, Obama and Romney tangled over the automobile bailout, an issue of importance in the politically competitive state of Ohio, where industry suppliers and their employees have benefited from the sector’s recovery.
“If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China,” Obama said, referring to a signed opinion piece published in The New York Times Nov. 18, 2008 in which he said that if the federal government put up money to rescue General Motors and Chrysler, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.”
Romney argued in the piece for a bankruptcy process without any federal funds -- something that Republicans and Democrats have said wasn’t feasible since there was no entity at the time willing to provide the money that would have been needed to prop up the companies while they reorganized.
“I’m a son of Detroit,” Romney said. “I like American cars, and I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.” To which Obama replied: “Governor, the people in Detroit don’t forget.”
While the two candidates differed on domestic issues, there were few areas of disagreement on global matters.
On Iran, Romney said Obama’s administration had projected “weakness” instead of strength. Still, he endorsed the sanctions the president has imposed, calling them “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“I would have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them,” Romney added.
On Afghanistan, the Republican nominee who has in the past criticized Obama for laying out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014, endorsed that move now.
“We’re going to be finished by 2014,” Romney said, adding that military officials are “on track to do so” after “progress over the past several years.”
Romney made several attempts to portray Obama as having abandoned the U.S.’s most important ally in the Middle East.
“The president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel,” Romney said, referring to a report that Obama had privately told Jewish leaders early in his presidency that he was staking out some independence from Israeli policies in order to bolster U.S. credibility with Arab states.
Romney also criticized Obama for failing to stop in Jerusalem on his first trip to the Middle East as president. Obama hit back by attacking Romney’s July trip to Israel as a fundraising tour devoid of the real issues.
“When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors. I didn’t attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.
Obama cited his visit to the Israeli border town of Sderot, which had been the target of rocket attacks by Hamas, and said: “I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why as president we funded the Iron Dome program,” to repel those rockets. Obama in July added $70 million in additional funding to the program.
Debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News tried to force both men to declare whether they would consider an attack on Israel an attack on the United States, and as they did many times in the debate, they gave similar answers.
“If Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel,” Obama said.
Romney replied that “if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”
The Republican, who is running ads in politically competitive states branding China a “cheater,” moderated his tone on the issue during the debate.
“We can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them,” Romney said. Still, he repeated his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a move he has said would make it easier to impose tariffs on Chinese exports.
Obama vowed to crack down on China’s perceived unfair trade advantages. He said his administration has “brought more cases against China for violating trade rules” than Bush did in his two terms, specifically highlighting two that impacted Ohio workers.
“My attitude coming into office was that we are going to insist that China plays by the same rules as everybody else,” Obama said, adding that he set up a trade task force “to go after cheaters.”
Nicholas Lardy, a China economy specialist at the non-partisan Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said there was “some convergence on China” at the debate, “suggesting the prospects for a trade war are falling.”