Obama Won the Presidential Debate, But Just Barely

This is it – the final presidential debate before the November 6 election.  Tonight’s topic: foreign policy.  Moderated by Face the Nation (CBS) host Bob Schieffer, the debate will be virtually identical in structure to the first debate, with the likely difference being that President Obama will actually show up to this one.  So after a month of pot-shots, digs, zingers, burns, gaffes, inappropriate smiling, and excessive hydration, what can we expect in tonight’s debate?

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Expect a war.  Both presidential candidates proved they are capable of holding their own after an impressive showing at last week’s debate.  Romney and Obama will look to build on the momentum of last week’s performance, refining their chosen narratives and taking every opportunity to deliver a knockout blow that the media and internet can repeat for the next week   - (‘binders full of women’ anyone?) –leaving little room for damage control before the election.  Despite his two major gaffes (Libya and the binders), Mitt Romney demonstrated he could hold his own against a person many consider to be one of the best orators of recent history – and what’s more, do so in a relatively aggressive and assertive way.  It was also during last week’s debate that President Obama reminded Mitt Romney, and the world, what he’s capable of when he shows up ready to engage.  Don’t believe me? Get the transcript.

Libya, Libya, Libya.  As the most recent foreign policy snafu to ensnare the United States, it makes sense that Libya would be a prominent point of discussion in a foreign policy debate.  This is doubly true given the way it has become politicized.  Romney is looking to make Libya the centerpiece of a wider narrative which characterizes the attacks as evidence of an ‘unraveling’ of Obama’s foreign policy – specifically in the Middle East.  Given his misstep during last week’s debate which many saw as an opportunity to hit Obama where it hurts, Romney will be looking to correct his mistake.  Expect him to have his facts straight and to push the perceived lack of security and the muddled and confused response from the Obama administration.  Conversely, expect Obama to be ready for any and all Libya questions.  His campaign staff knows this is a weak point and will expect Romney to go for the jugular.  We’re unlikely to see another “proceed, Governor” moment, but Libya will certainly be one of the more contentious aspects of tonight’s debate.

Iran.  Obviously.  Next to Libya, expect the debate around Iran to be the most hotly contested.  Interestingly enough, however, it is also the one issue where both candidates tend to agree on what should be done to prevent a nuclear –capable Iran.  We saw this most prominently in the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.  In an effort to highlight a distinctive policy, Romney will likely emphasize strong support for Israel and a willingness to take a more forceful stance.  Obama, for his part, can point to the large US-Israeli joint military exercises currently underway and the effectiveness of the existing sanctions.  Regardless of the specific points, expect Iran to be a hot topic.

Defense Budget.  In an attempt to characterize Obama as weak on foreign policy, Romney will surely bring up the size of the Navy and Obama’s proposed defense budget cuts.  In turn, Obama will emphasize that the military isn’t asking for more money and how Romney’s plan will increase the budget by two trillion dollars.  You can also expect Romney to tie the issue to his wider narrative that America needs a robust and assertive military posture, lest its geostrategic rivals China and Russia fill the perceived void.  All-in-all, defense spending will come up and will be used to draw out wider policy differences.

China.  Yes, just about as obvious as Iran.  Because of its close association to trade and the economy, China will figure prominently in the debate and will be an issue where both candidates come looking for blood.  Romney will bring up his oft-cited ‘currency manipulator’ points and characterize the Obama administration as ‘soft’ on China.  Obama can tout the ‘Pacific pivot’ undertaken under his watchful eye and hammer Romney on the connection between companies Romney was involved in (mostly through Bain Capital) and job outsourcing.  Obama and Romney have fundamentally opposing views on how to manage US-China relations, though it is unlikely you will hear many specifics in tonight’s debate.  It’s also possible (though unlikely) that Romney will bring up cyber attacks or the recent Congressional report outlining the threat Chinese telecommunications companies pose to the US.  Both Romney and Obama prefer to talk about China in broad, undefined ways, specifically because it is nothing more than campaign rhetoric.  The differences in policy between an Obama and Romney administration on this issue would be negligible.

Bottom Line: As the final presidential debate, this is the last opportunity Romney has to convince the American public that he is a more capable Commander-in-Chief. At this point in the game, the talking points from both candidates are well rehearsed, and we are unlikely to hear anything ‘new’ in that regard.   That said, the tone will be intensified.  Romney will likely take a more ‘hawkish’ approach to tonight’s debate because he can – Romney has the advantage of not being in office.  That is, he is less restricted in what he can say because he is not the sitting president. It’s easy to say all sorts of things when campaigning, but once you’re sitting behind the desk your perspective changes. It is precisely because of this that you can bet that Romney’s first day in office wouldn’t be nearly as busy as he says it would (and you can double down that Romney won’t label China  a currency manipulator on his first day).  Conversely, Obama has the advantage of being the sitting president. He can draw on what he has actually done, not what he would do.  From drone strikes in multiple countries to an internationally supported sanctions regime against Iran, Obama has a lot he can hold up as evidence of his foreign policy competency.  And, of course, he has the ace of spades: be surprised if half an hour passes before Obama mentions killing bin Laden.

PolicyMic will be covering the presidential debate live starting at 9pm EST. For live updates, bookmark and refresh this page.

UPDATE: Calling it now: Binders full of teachers.


Closing remarks: Obama and Romney both basically just said the exact same thing: we have a bright future, America is fundamentally strong, our capacity for change is great - we just need strong leadership and I, [insert name here] am the person most capable of providing that leadership.  Yawn. Where's Ron Paul? At least he has something different to say.

[10:30pm]  Is this debate being moderated, or what?  I think Bob fell asleep.  This is a FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE! Stop talking about teachers and domestic policy issues!

[10:25]  It took ten minutes of talking about China before it became a debate about the domestic auto industry again. I'm willing to bet they start mentioning Israel again within five minutes.

[10:20pm]  Romney DOES mention cyber crime and theft. Suprising. Still willing to bet a good chunk of change that Romney won't label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office (or second or third).   That said, he's absolutely right about standing up for counterfited goods and intellectual property theft that seems to be an epidemic in China.

Obama's reply: back to the old 'Romney favors outsourcing jobs to China' line.  Could be a bit more substantive in his reply, given the depth of Romneys - uh...now he's getting into the technical stuff. This is a straight up bare-knuckle brawl.

[10:15pm] Talking about China - Obama: "adversary and potential partner, so long as it plays by the rules" - specifically America's rules. Demonstrating strong record of standing up to China in the WTO; pointing out Romney was against some of those policies.  Obama strong on China, Romney weak in the same breath? 

Romney comes back with a strong retort: government doesn't make businesses successful.

[10:10pm] Neither Mitt nor Obama are talking about the massive turnover of Afghan military personnel.  How can they step up and take the lead of their own security in 2014 if they can't even keep half their troops for longer than a year?

[10:05pm]  Mitt looks like he's trying real hard to remember the difference between Pakistan and Afghanistan and all the facts.  Obama is just staring at him with cold eyes. 

[10:02pm]  Obama finally plays the 'we killed bin Laden' and 9/11 card. Your move, Mittens.

[10:00pm]  Mittens has a pretty bleak world view. Annnnd again, Israel, Israel, Israel.

[9:56pm] Mittens: you went to the Middle East but skipped Israel.  Is this a 'who loves Israel' debate or a foreign policy debate?! 

[9:53pm] Mittens: a willingness to talk to your enemies is weakness  - Obama went on an international apology tour.  Obama: nothing he just said is true.

[9:51pm] The look on Mittens' face while Obama is talking is that of a sad puppy. It literally looks like his eyes are watering. Come on, Mittens, you're doing alright!

[9:47pm] Question about nuclear capable Iran - did a nuclear capable North Korea not pose the same threat to America's allies (Japan, South Korea, etc)? Did it start a regional nuclear arms race? No. So....why so serious?

[9:45] Back to the 'who loves Israel more' debate. Annnnd POTUS just mentioned the US-Israeli war games to happen this week - called it!

[9:40pm] Mittens: the navy is smallest since 1917. Pretty sure 1 nuclear carrier is better than 2 of whatever they were using in 1917.   Arguing about military spending more contentious than I thought.  POTUS finally uses some logic: it's not about numbers, it's about capabilities. Mittens just got burnt. Poor Mittens.

[9:38pm]  Finally, Bob asks a question worth asking: How will Mittens pay for his stronger military? Answer: Cut federal programs; transfer them back to the states.  Not such a bad idea, but you still can't balance a budget without cutting the military budget too, which is already insanely huge.

[9:36 EST]:  is this a foreign policy debate or a domestic debate about economic policies? Sure, they're related, but let's stay focused, BOB!

[9:30pm EST] Mittens: we need to fix the economy but we need a strong military that is, by his own admission, second to none. By what percentage must you outspend the rest of the world before the military is ‘strong’ enough?

Took half an hour before both Mittens and POTUS turned this foreign policy debate into a chance to list their domestic economic platforms.

[9:28 pm EST] According to both candidates, US foreign policy is about supporting democractic reform in the Middle East, so long as people are electing people who are supportive of the US.

Here comes the military budget cut talk. 

[9:22pm EST] Some slight technical difficulties here. Lots to get to:

Trying to count the number of times Mittens and POTUS mention Israel. Already lost count; Mittens talking about women’s rights and equality in the Middle East…unless they want abortions, I guess?  POTUS coming out aggressive: “The 1980s called – they want their foreign policy back” and highlighting the fact that Mittens hasn’t made any foreign policy decisions before (lack of experience) are notable hits. Mittens seems confused on what to do with Syria: work through our partners but be the leaders but not in a direct military sense. Huh?

[9:06] It took all of 6 or 7 minutes before POTUS mentioned killing bin Laden (though, has yet to name him).   Romney: "we can't kill our way out of this" - does this mean he's soft on terrorism?

[9:03pm EST] Weeee arrrrre liiiiive.  #bloodlust

[8:53pm EST]:  Bob Schieffer just told the crowd to shut up so they can have a debate worthy of the presidency. I guess he hasn't seen the last 3 debates?

How much do you trust the information in this article?

David A. Beitelman

Toronto born David A. Beitelman is currently a PhD student in Political Science at Dalhousie University and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He holds Masters degrees in American Studies and Political Science, and a BA (Hons) Specialization in Political Science with a Major in American Studies, from the University of Western Ontario. His primary interests are American foreign and defense policy and International Relations.

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