In July 2008, Barack Obama snuck out of his house on the South Side of Chicago and made a secret trip to Midway Airport, where the then-Democratic presidential nominee boarded an unmarked Gulfstream jet for a flight to Washington and, ultimately, his first visit to Afghanistan.
Just over four years later, now-President Obama sat on the stage for his third and final debate with Mitt Romney and dissected his Republican challenger’s foreign policy views. He suggested the former businessman lacked the familiarity, consistency, and forward-looking approach to be an effective president.
It was perhaps the boldest statement of a night that saw Obama turn in the strongest performance of his three-debate series with Romney.
If there was one downside, it was on a topic—foreign affairs—that polls have consistently shown ranks well behind job creation and economic recovery as most important on voters’ minds.
For that reason, both Obama and Romney tried repeatedly to connect their statements with their domestic policy beliefs as they addressed their last mass television audience before the general election two weeks from today.
“Governor Romney has taken a different approach throughout this campaign,” the president said in response to a question about his vision of America’s role in the world. “Both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century.”
Romney replied, “I’ve got a policy for the future and agenda for the future. And when it comes to our economy here at home, I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay. And what we’ve seen over the last four years is something I don’t want to see over the next four years.”
Romney was judged the clear winner of the first debate on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, thanks to his aggressive performance and Obama’s listless response. Their debate last week at Hostra University was noteworthy for its vigorous exchanges, as Obama not only spoke of his beliefs but attacked Romney’s.
On Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the president appeared determined to remain the aggressor, especially since he felt comfortable with the debate’s declared focus on foreign policy.
Time and again, Obama sought to explain what his administration had done and why in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Iran, and Syria, before exposing how Romney generally agreed with his approach even if he disagreed with elements of its timing or tone.
“To the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized,” the president said at one point. “But when it came time to making sure that (Colonel Moammar) Khadafy did not stay in power, that he was captured, governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.”
Obama added: “Imagine if we had pulled out at that point: You know, Moammar Khadafy had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us.”
At another point, the president pushed back on Romney’s criticism of his approach to Iran.
“I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking,” Obama said. “You know, there have been times, governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that would make a difference. And it turns out that the work involved in setting up these crippling sanctions is painstaking. It’s meticulous. We started from the day we got into office. And the reason is was so important—and this is a testament to how we’ve restored American credibility and strength around the world—is we had to make sure that all the countries participated, even countries like Russia and China.”
That, too, was a more subtle differentiation from the foreign policy approach he ascribed to his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, and which Obama argues Romney would repeat.
Even when Romney himself sought to differentiate himself from Obama, it was often in a manner of degree, not approach.
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions,” Romney said in reference to Iran. “I would have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them. No. 2, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions.”
Later, Romney argued that the US a vested interest in preventing Pakistan from disintegrating and losing control of its nuclear weapons. Yet he added: “I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.”
At several points in the debate, though, Obama risked coming off as churlish and even self-indulgent.
It was especially noticeable as Romney seemed determined to appear sober and presidential before an audience sizing him up as a potential commander in chief.
For example, when Romney argued for spending more money on a Navy now smaller than at any time since 1917, the president replied, “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
At another point, Obama even undercut Vice President Joe Biden—who often boasts that the president “has a backbone like a ramrod”—by lumping him in with Romney as among those who had concerns about violating Pakistan’s sovereignty in the hunt for bin Laden.
“Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did,” the president said. “But what the American people understand is that I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe and to move our interests forward, and I make those decisions.”
It was a notable display of confidence in an arena that has always a strength for Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was still seen as an Obama weakness just about this time during the 2008 presidential campaign.
He overcame those doubts then, just as Romney hopes to do now.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.