Obama tears into Romney at last debate
By: Alexander Burns
October 22, 2012 06:10 PM EDT
President Barack Obama tore into Mitt Romney as a vacillating foreign policy novice during the final presidential debate Monday, as the former Massachusetts governor sought to close Obama’s long-standing advantage on international affairs and national security.
Both candidates lobbed sharp accusations at each other throughout the forum at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., but it was Obama who set the caustic tone at the outset and dialed it up from there.
Putting his disdain for Romney on vivid display, Obama said his challenger has been “all over the map” on matters of war and peace and pushed back more aggressively than ever on some of Romney’s stock foreign policy attacks
“Every time you have offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” Obama said, citing Romney’s support for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the GOP nominee’s backing of a more open-ended commitment both there and in Afghanistan.
Obama slammed Romney for allegedly misunderstanding the 21st-century global landscape — “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he said — and quoted Romney’s 2007-vintage comments questioning how much effort should be applied to finding Osama bin Laden.
“You said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man. You said we should ask Pakistan for permission,” Obama said. “It was worth moving heaven and earth to get [bin Laden.]”
And when Romney accused Obama of having embarked on an “apology tour” in the Middle East and having failed to visit Israel, Obama shot back that he was happy to talk “about all the trips we’ve taken.”
“When I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops,” Obama said. “And 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.”
Romney, for his part, took a cooler approach to the debate that reflected his enhanced stature in a race that has tightened since the first debate in Denver at the start of October. With foreign policy as one of Obama’s few remaining national strengths, Romney delivered familiar criticisms in a level tone, rather than taking big risks with attacks aimed at the jugular.
If Obama took nearly every opportunity to slash at his opponent, Romney sought out openings to recite crowd-pleasing passages from his stump speech. At one point, he even ticked off parts of his five-point economic plan, taking the chance to amplify that message for a national prime-time audience.
The consistent theme in Romney’s critique of the president was strength — the need for an American president to project that quality, and to give no quarter in policies or rhetoric to enemies abroad. And he hit Obama for being so aggressive in the debate itself.
“Attacking me is not talking about an agenda,” Romney repeatedly chided the president.
Under Obama, Romney charged, America’s enemies have seen “weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” And where Obama has intervened abroad, in places like Libya, Romney said the president has allowed events to spiral out of control.
“With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation,” Romney said. “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.”
The first round of snap polling on the debate suggested Obama’s aggressive approach helped him prevail in the encounter. In a CBS News survey of undecided voters, 53 percent of respondents said Obama won the debate while 23 percent named Romney.
A CNN survey of registered voters who watched the debate – not just undecided voters – tipped Obama for a narrower win, 48 percent to Romney’s 40 percent. In a third poll, a Public Policy Polling survey of swing state voters, Obama came out on top, 53 percent to 42 percent.
Yet for all the sound and fury in Boca, it’s unclear how heavily issues of foreign policy are weighing on the minds of the electorate.
Relatively few voters have named national security as their top priority in this election. Overwhelmingly, economic issues have taken center stage and it is unclear how much voters care about the issues raised tonight such as the unrest in North Africa, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Chinese currency manipulation.
After routing Obama at the first debate in Denver three weeks ago, Romney stands in a tie or better with the president in most national and swing-state polling. But Obama has retained several key advantages, and a POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll published on Monday found that 51 percent of voters said Obama would handle foreign policy better than Romney. Forty-two percent favored Romney.
But Obama’s status as the incumbent president — and more specifically, the chief executive who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden — has been one of his most reliable assets in the race. For Romney, chipping away at that advantage and presenting himself to the public as a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons are both important priorities.
Romney and Obama were seated across a table from each other in tonight’s face-off. In their first debate, they stood at podiums while in last week’s debate they strode around a town hall-style debate stage.
Moderating their last encounter was Bob Schieffer, anchor of CBS’s “Face the Nation.” It appears that Schieffer intends to lean heavily on questions related to the Middle East and terrorism. Of the six topics he has selected, only one — “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World” — focuses on a region outside the Middle East and Central Asia.
If voters incline toward Obama on questions of international diplomacy, Romney has narrowed the gap on the so-called commander-in-chief test — voters’ ability to envision the GOP nominee leading the U.S. military.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published over the weekend, voters picked Obama over Romney by a 44 percent to 41 percent gap as being “being a good commander in chief.” A Washington Post/ABC News poll released late Monday afternoon, in the hours before the debate, showed the candidates essentially tied on the issue of terrorism.
And a more detailed survey last week from the Pew Research Center showed Obama with a narrow, 4-point lead on the broad question of “making wise decisions” on foreign policy, and a 5-point lead over Romney among voters asked who they’d trust to handle instability in Egypt and Libya.
Romney, however, had a 9-point lead on the issue of trade with China. Voters were evenly split on which candidate they’d prefer to have handling Iran and its nuclear ambitions.The overall state of the foreign policy debate, Pew found, “represents a substantial gain for Romney, who trailed Obama by 15 points on foreign policy issues in September.”