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Obama vs. Romney: why foreign policy could be the tiebreaker

October 18, 2012

Amazing things happen during a campaign season between the primaries and the general elections. Almost without fail, by the time party conventions roll around in late August-beginning of September, two crucial transformations take place in the American political arena: the middle class gets elevated to a position of absolute dominance, becoming, for a rare few weeks, Washington’s only concern; and, at the same time, candidates who have elbowed their way to their party’s nomination by pandering to the more extreme supporters, suddenly tilt toward the center of the political spectrum, hoping that just enough voters haven’t been paying attention and might therefore still be open to buying their revised arguments.

This year is no exception, as seen this week in the second of three scheduled presidential debates. Lobbies, interest groups, the poor, the rich, religious activists, the base and all those other people who dominated the making of this and every other campaign, have by now completely disappeared from sight, to make space for the fuzzy concept of “people in the economic middle,” which encompasses all sorts of voters.

In the meantime, Mitt Romney – the only one of the two contenders for the White House who has had to win his party primaries this year – has completed a political metamorphosis of his own, shedding the last bits of the hardened conservative shell he showed throughout the first half of the year and blossoming into a full-throttled champion of the middle class, opposing tax cuts for the rich and supporting, among other things, increased funding for education and the right of all women to have access to contraception.

Americans are traditionally tolerant of politicians pivoting back to the center during a general elections campaign, but, even by these standards, the former Governor of Massachusetts is one of the most difficult-to-read candidates of the recent past. He is hard to pin down on specific policies and, at times, he seems to suggest that voters should take his words as a matter of faith, even in those instances where they are substantiated by few facts or figures. During the latest presidential debate, the former governor was asked to go into some detail with regard to his tax plan, whose numbers don’t entirely add up (he promises to cut taxes, increase defense spending, protect entitlements and, lately, even boost funding for education, while also balancing the budget). Tellingly, his response was not to offer additional information but rather to say somewhat scornfully: “Well, of course they add up. I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget.”

Romney’s reticence to provide substance and his tendency to flip-flop handed easy lines of attack to President Barack Obama, who had failed to take advantage of such openings in the first debate at the beginning of October but appeared to have recovered most of his vigor and self-confidence in the October 16  debate. On many an occasion the President called out Romney’s inconsistencies with comments such as “What Governor Romney is saying just isn’t true,” or “very little of what Governor Romney says is true,” or “what I try to do is try to be consistent.”

The impression many people have that Romney is indeed inconsistent is by far the former Governor’s greatest weakness and a point the Obama campaign will continue to hammer home in the next three weeks until the November 6th vote. It is the President’s best shot to conceal his own Achilles’ heel, the fact that the US economy is still struggling and that many Americans are disappointed with what he has been able to achieve during his first four years in the White House.

It is no coincidence that, while Obama tries to make the elections as much as possible about Romney’s frequent changes of mind, the former Governor attempts to turn it into a referendum on the President’s first term in office. And the GOP candidate is doing this increasingly well, conveying his criticism of the administration in forceful and convincing ways (and relying on a lot of figures.)

“The [President’s] entire record is such that the unemployment has not been reduced in this country,” he said at the Hofstra University debate. “The number of people who are still looking for work is still 23 million Americans. There are more people in poverty – one out of six people in poverty. How about food stamps? When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps; today 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It’s growing more slowly this year than last year and more slowly last year than the year before.”

Obama, for his part, is doing relatively little to dispel the doubts that have been mounting over his handling of the economy. He has not always been able to defend his record as persuasively as he should have (although he did a better job at it in this latest debate,) and he hasn’t offered much in terms of new ideas for a second term. His general attitude seems to suggest that he will continue on the path laid out starting four years ago. This is a prospect that Democrats very much like but that might swell the dissatisfaction of the many moderate Americans who might appreciate him personally but who are not enthusiastic about his performance so far.

Unexpectedly, foreign policy, which has received only marginal attention in this campaign until at least the recent attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, might turn out to be the theme that decides the election. After the first face-off on domestic issues dominated by a energetic Romney, the VP debate won by Vice President Joe Biden but with an honorable showing by Paul Ryan, and the town hall debate where Obama came out ahead even though Romney generally held his own, the third and last presidential debate of this year will in fact focus exclusively on the international stage.

Here things don’t look too promising for the former Governor. It was precisely during an exchange on Libya during the debate, one that should have played into his hand, that he was instead handed the biggest blow of the night. He attacked the President for not immediately calling the assault on the consulate a terrorist act and was rebuffed not only by Obama, but by moderator Candy Crowley as well, who fact-checked him live pointing out that the President had done just that in his statement from the Rose Garden following the attack. Romney looked dazzled and confused, and for a few minutes, clearly out of his depth.

For the first time, viewers and pundits got the feeling that foreign policy could end up being the tiebreaker.

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

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