Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Eight observations from the final presidential debate

1. President Obama and Mitt Romney have essentially the same foreign policy. The difference is that Obama is a lot more articulate in outlining his. Where he sounded assured and confident and erudite, Romney resorted to language and a tone that would have made George W. Bush proud. His strategy is to “go after the bad guys.”
No doubt many Americans would lap up this talk, but it made him sound amateurish and cowboy-like. Then again, we already had a cowboy in office for a full eight years.

2. Dividing lines were hard to spot. Romney would have imposed sanctions on Iran even earlier. He wants to make them tighter. He’s still banging on about formally labelling China a currency manipulator. He wants to arm the Syrian rebels, if he can actually identify them. As he acknowledged, they’re a disparate bunch. Obama pretty much wants the same, except he’s hesitant about fully arming people who may 20 years in the future use these arms to attack America. It seems some lessons have been learned. Both were gushing in their unstinting and unconditional support for Israel, come what May.

3. Romney cleverly used America’s economic struggles at home with a perceived weakness abroad. High unemployment and record debt undermined America’s standing in the eyes of the world, went Romney’s line. This was his strongest point of the evening.

4. Obama failed to adequately respond to Romney’s accusation that soon after taking office, Obama had embarked on an ‘apology tour.’ In other words, by visiting several Muslim countries, trying to rebuild bridges, win back trust, he was apologising for America’s greatness and making it look weak. Obama should have been more forceful in explaining why this tour was necessary.

5. Discussion often got diverted back to domestic issues, in particular the economy, putting Romney on safer terrain. He regurgitated his five point plan to get American back on track and attacked Obama’s economic record. Obama used this as a chance to lay out his vision on education and belittle Romney’s plan as tried, tested and failed: ‘W.Bush Mark II.” It is this part of the debate that probably got voters’ attention.

6. The format of the second debate looks and feels a lot better. It gives proceedings energy and movement. But last night’s was preferable to the one in Denver - rigidly stuck behind lecterns - with the candidates so close they were almost touching. 

7. This debate will change virtually nothing. Out of all the debates, this one will have minimal impact. Expect polls to barely budge. The first put Romney firmly back in the game, or at least competitive again. The second saw a rejuvenated Obama come out firing and helped stem the loss of support. Last night’s debate may as well not have happened. Why? Foreign Policy is way down on American voters’ priorities. Not just outside the top three, but near the bottom. According to a series of Reuters/Ipsos polls carried out since January, only two per cent of likely voters put “war/foreign conflicts,” and “terrorism/terrorist attacks” as their number one concern. This figure has never even breached the figure of five per cent.

8. Taking this into account, one could reasonable argue why even bother devoting a whole debate to foreign policy? Because Americans want to feel safe. This is a nation riddled with paranoia. Perception matters as much at home as it does abroad. As does trust. Obama did a fine job presenting himself as Americans’ commander-in-chief. Romney did a good job reducing foreign policy to simplistic quips. It didn’t make him sound presidential. It made him sound out of his depth. What Obama would call his ‘credibility problem.’

This comment piece was first published on Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 23rd October 2012

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