Scores: Obama 77 | Romney 75
Judge: Ray D’Cruz
President Obama won this debate because he was able to challenge Governor Romney’s changing positions on key issues. He undermined Romney’s strategy of neutralising as many difficult issues as possible, though his clumsy manner as he swung wildly at Romney early in the debate made it a close result.
On the questions relating to Libya, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan Romney sought to narrow the gap between his position and those of Obama. In debating sense, it amounted to a concession though probably it was considered politically less damaging. Yet Obama did inflict some damage on Romney’s credibility by talking through changes of position on issues – implying that his current positions were ones of political convenience rather than long-held conviction. He also provided what may be an appealing overall message for war-weary Americans: that America is working within the international community and will not go it alone.
While Romney avoided contesting individual examples within the Middle East, his broader attack on Obama for projecting weakness in the region was sharp. He summarised the President’s initial approach to the region in damaging terms, especially in relation to Israel. Obama did not respond fully, picking on aspect to defend and leaving the others unchecked. Even after Romney called for Israel-Palestine peace Obama inexplicably failed to remind the audience about Romney’s private comments on the subject. Romney approached China from the projecting weakness angle too but this attack fell flat with Obama demonstrating good progress under his watch and Romney once again visiting a tariff war.
On what might have been his most challenging foreign policy issue – the gap between proposed Democrat and Republican defence spending – Obama had probably the most decisive win of the night. He used humour to mock Romney’s poor understanding of current defence requirements (including an argument Romney used regularly in the Republican primary debates about the size of the navy) and contrasted it to his own more strategic (read intelligent) approach.
Of course, as with all these foreign policy debates, the candidates pivoted toward domestic issues and the economy whenever they could. The moderator let them go for a while before pulling them back. In some cases, their responses simply failed the relevance test in debates, despite the tenuous link offered by both: strong at home, strong abroad.
The manner of both speakers changed markedly through the debate. Obama charged out of the gates, and was met by a more reserved Romney. This seemed to throw the president who at times during the first 30 minutes was liked an inexperienced boxer swinging wildly. How could he have not anticipated a more reserved approach from Romney given the challenger had to portray stability and sensibility? It underlined that a highly aggressive Obama is not playing to type. He did settle into the debate, and managed to calibrate his approach. Romney on the other hand moved the other way – going from fluent to staccato, eventually peppering the debate with incomplete sentences. But Romney had an advantage in manner, because Obama just took too long to find the right tone. In the end, a win for Obama on matter, with the margin narrowed by Romney’s better manner.