Obama, Romney Debate Economic, Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama participates in a televised debate with Republican Mitt Romney at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, October 16

President Barack Obama participates in a televised debate with Republican Mitt Romney at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, October 16 (Obama for America/Scout Tufankjian)

President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney met in Hempstead, New York on Tuesday night for their second televised debate before November’s election. The candidates answered questions from the audience on both domestic and foreign policy.

The stakes were particularly high for the incumbent whose lackluster performance in the first debate in Colorado two weeks ago disappointed many Democrats.

Romney, by contrast, was seen as repairing the image of a callous, out of touch millionaire as he had been portrayed for months in the president’s campaign commercials. As former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich put it on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “People saw him and said, ‘wait a second, that’s not the guy I’ve been frightened about.'” Instead, Romney appeared calm but capable whereas Obama struggled to deliver concise and convincing arguments.

The president came better prepared for a fight on Tuesday although he could ill afford to be seen as too aggressive for fear of putting off centrist voters. The same applied to Romney. The president still enjoys high personal approval ratings so the Republican had to criticize Obama’s policies without calling into question his character.

Romney trailed the president in national opinion polls as well as the nine critical swing states where neither party holds a decisive lead until two weeks ago but has managed to close the gap with the president in Virginia and is even ahead in Florida. Obama holds on to a two point advantage in Ohio. These three states, with a combined thirty electoral votes, will likely determine the outcome of the presidential election.

This debate was certainly not a campaign ending smackdown. But it was certainly, in conjunction with Vice President Biden’s showing last week, enough to turn the momentum around for the Obama campaign. If the president has another showing like this to close out the debates before heading into the final stretch of the campaign, he won’t reach the same heights he did during the “47 percent video” revelations but it willll put him in a more dominant position than he is at the moment.

Three things will come out of this debate: the replacement of “Big Bird” as the Internet meme of the week with Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” reference; the replacement of the storyline of Obama’s collapse with a storyline of a tied race; the wrestling over the semantics of what President Obama said in the Rose Garden after the Benghazi attack and whether Candy Crowley’s interjection was appropriate for a moderator.

This might have been Mitt Romney’s most unfortunate surprise of the night. What was potentially his best issue, the consulate attack in Benghazi, was blunted by Mitt Romney overplaying his hand, resulting in an impassioned response from President Obama decrying the Republican for accusing his administration of politicization and a quick, on the spot fact check from Candy Crowley.

Will these things, and this debate, matter? Only insomuch as they restabilize the Obama campaign. Given that the fundamentals of the campaign (most importantly, Ohio) favor President Obama, the edge has probably gone back to the president.

Compared to the debate in Colorado two weeks ago, the president gave a very difference performance on Tuesday night. He vehemently criticized his Republican opponent’s proposed policies—even policies he doesn’t actually propose—and called on the moderator at least twice when he felt that Romney was taking up too much time. It almost seemed as though Barack Obama was the challenger instead of the incumbent.

As in the previous debate, the president didn’t say much about what he would do in a second term but was aggressive this time, perhaps too aggressive for the centrist, blue collar voter in Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin whom he must persuade that his program is one of jobs, not left wing ideology.

Romney’s argument was fairly straightforward. “We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level,” he said. “We don’t have to settle for twenty-three million people struggling to find a job.” He was telling voters: we can do better than this and I know how to because I’ve been in business and I’ve been a governor. It wasn’t inspiring. Romney’s attempt is to appear competent. It’s far from clear yet whether that is enough to get him the 270 electoral votes that are needed to win in November.

In general, this debate was a solid, thoughtful and substantive one. Both candidates were prepared on virtually every issue. President Obama was far more aggressive and persuasive than he was during the first debate but Mitt Romney again performed well.

Unfortunately, much of the debate was focused on domestic policy, including the slow growth of jobs in the country, the unemployment rate, tax breaks and personal character. Even when the debate turned to foreign policy though, both Obama and Romney had clearly done their homework.

It will be difficult to determine an actual winner in this debate but on the foreign policy front, the president squeeked out a victory. When the Libya issue came up, he provided an answer that was abundantly supported by many in the room. But what he also did was frame Romney’s argument on the terrorist attacks as mired in politics. The Republican failed to offer a convincing rebuttal.

Besides the question on Libya, China’s status as a currency manipulator and a few references from Obama that he ended the unpopular war in Iraq, taxes and the economy was pushed to the center of the discussion. This is, of course, what should have been expected: Most American voters are concerned with their pocketbooks and taking home a decent salary, not on whether Washington should arm the Free Syrian Army or launch air strikes to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability. In the minds of Americans, the economy is number one.

Obama and Romney, however, will both need to brush up on international relations before the third and final presidential debate. They have only a week to do so before they meet again. The goal for Obama is to keep the public’s confidence in him as a man who can defend American interests in a dangerous and volatile world. All Romney can do is try to close the gap on revealing where the president has failed, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Pakistan and perhaps Afghanistan, and explain what he would do differently to prove that the United States are still the world’s best example of “leadership.”

Romney repeated his promise to label China a “currency manipulator.” Both candidates, in fact, promise to “crack down” on China. Such protectionists rhetoric isn’t grounded in economic reality.

Since 2005, when the Chinese renminbi was depegged from the dollar, the value of the currency had actually increased more than 30 percent. In recent years, it has continued to climb, not so much “because we pushed them hard,” as the president put it, though.

Treasury secretary Timothy Geither has pointed out that “Chinese inflation is probably going to be more than twice, three times US inflation rates for a long time to come.” As a result, exchange rates, in real terms, are appreciating “at roughly a pace of about 10 percent a year,” he added. “And that’s a very substantial material change.”

For the Chinese to let the value of their currency increase faster would be to imperil exports and therefore manufacturers and therefore jobs when hundreds of millions of Chinese are still living in poverty.

Further American trade action is unlikely not to invite retaliation. Former China ambassador Jon Huntsman, who himself ran for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination late last year, warned in an interview with CNN last month, “If you’re going to take on China on one issue, then you better be prepared for the response.”

Neither candidate discussed such a possible Chinese response nor the benefits of trade. The conservative Heritage Foundation found that Chinese imports in apparel and toys alone sustained up to 576,000 American jobs in 2010.

These jobs are in fields such as transportation, wholesale, retail, construction and finance and in myriad other activities that are involved in turning a manufactured product into a good that is ready for use by the average American.

The Wall Street Journal similarly reported that more than half of the value of Chinese imports directly benefits the American economy.

Fifty-five cents of every dollar spent on a product with a “Made in China” label actually goes to Americans who design the products; manufacture components that are shipped to China for final assembly; transport the goods; market and retail them; finance their production and trade, and so on.

“Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?” A great question in an otherwise murky story in Libya.

President Obama responded in a strong and decisive manner, saying that he is the man ultimately responsible for putting American diplomats in harm’s way. “We are going to find out who did this and hunt them down,” he said.

The problem is that the investigation is anything but smooth, with lackluster cooperation from a weak Libyan Government and the administration’s stance about what precipitated the attack shifting.

Instead of addressing the issue head on, Obama chose to spend a considerable amount of time attacking Romney’s critique over the past two weeks. The Republican was right to highlight the administration’s reluctance to call the Libya assault a terrorist attack but he was not right to criticize Obama for going on a fundraiser the day after the incident. It is campaign season after all.

Romney predictably tied the Libya attack to Obama’s broader foreign policy which he called weak and “unraveling.” But it is hard to see how the violence in Syria is effected by the killing of an American ambassador in Benghazi. International affairs are not linear.

President Obama was incredibly strong in his response to Romney’s remarks about misleading the American public after the attack. He claimed responsibility for any lapses that occurred during that day which showed that Obama was clearly prepared for the question. His response surprisingly drew applause and Romney was obviously rattled by it.

The investigation in Benghazi continues, American special forces are on standby and unmanned aerial vehicles are flying over Libya gathering intelligence on the situation. The White House, Defense Department and State Department are all working together to determine who exactly carried out the killings nearly a month later. This issue isn’t going to go away soon, no matter who is president.

President Obama didn’t file a bill on immigration in his first year because Senate Republicans filibustered everything, including naming post offices. That sounds like an excuse too but it’s true.

This myth of the Democratic supermajority—sixty out of the hundred senators needed to pass almost everything—is pervasive, though. It’s worth noting it was just for a few weeks between the swearing in of Al Franken and the election of Scott Brown that Democrats had that supermajority. Even then, some of the Democrats in this nominal supermajority were people like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman who, if they ran for office for the first time today, would have run as Republicans.

Effectively, the days that Congress was in session was less than that, due to the extremely short amount of time the legislature is actually in session. And even those days were dominated by health care reform. Does anyone believe that any president would or could have introduced immigration reform at that juncture? No one back then would have but three years later, it’s easy to forget these details.

It’s important to note that Obama didn’t mention the Bush wars as something that both reduced the deficit and that Romney sees eye to eye with Bush on. That may be because on foreign wars and defense spending, Obama has perpetuated many of the Bush era policies.

President Barack Obama has touted ending the war in Iraq throughout his campaign. But the fact of the manner is that it was the Bush Administration that negotiated and signed the Strategic Framework Agreement with the Iraqis in 2008 that called for the end of American combat operations in the country by the end of 2011, a timeline that Obama carried out.

The president did not mention his attempts to renegotiate a status of forces agreement to extend the American troop presence in the country. Those talks failed, in large part because the administration insisted on the approval of the Iraqi parliament. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki realized that there was no way the legislature would renew the agreement. The talks collapsed and the United States left a few weeks later.

It appeared that George W. Bush was still on the minds of at least some American voters. When asked how he would differ from the former Republican presdient, Mitt Romney said he would crack down on China for its currency manipulation and increase trade with Latin America.

The problem is that this is not much of a difference. President Bush made Latin America a priority early in his administration before the September 11 terrorist attacks changed his foreign policy outlook. Mexico and the United States deepened bilateral relations in the areas of trade, law enforcement and drug interdiction when Bush, a former governor of a border state, was in the White House.

Regarding China, President Bush was apprehensive about getting too close with the country until he realized that the United States could only get things done in the region with China’s help. The Chinese are, after all, a huge power in Asia. The Bush Administration recognized that it could not pressure the Chinese too hard if it wanted their support in the Security Council. Romney may come to the same conclusion.

The president said that Mitt Romney would have “health care decisions for women” made in Washington DC because he opposes an insurance mandate for contraception coverage. Which is actually the opposite of having bureaucrats or lawmakers make health care decisions for anyone. The Republican position is that the government shouldn’t decide what coverage health insurers provide—which is what the president’s health care law does.

Mitt Romney explained the basic rationale for reducing income tax rates: the majority of small businesses files taxes as individuals.

What he mentioned later in the debate is that the president’s health reform law puts an additional burden on small businesses: it forces them to buy insurance for their personnel once they’ve hired fifty workers or more. That’s a huge impediment to job creation at a time of fading business confidence.

One thing that is often missed regarding the price of gasoline is that when President Obama took office, as he said, the economy was “on the verge of collapse.” The unfortunate thing about the recovery is that demand and prices have gone up. One would think that Mitt Romney knows how those factors work together?

A balanced budget also doesn’t necessarily mean lower taxes. In fact, contrary to what Romney just said, it may involve (and probably will) involve some tax increases.

More math issues: This won’t be talked about but Romney said that he doesn’t want to reduce the taxes for the rich. But he also decried the fact that the top earners pay 60 percent of the tax burden and that that should change. Ignore for a moment the fact that they make a comparable share of the money. Obama should ask, “Which is it?”

It may have come as a shock to voters how much American energy production and efficiency have increased under the Obama Administration. The president did not answer the question on energy but wisely pivoted to debunking this myth that he is somehow anti-energy.

Romney threw up a distraction vis-à-vis the alleged “reduced” permits on federal lands. By reducing things to a small picture, he effectively cherry picked the United States’ energy situation to meet his purposes. And like Solyndra, the Republican’s talk about the Keystone Pipeline was a good way to reduce things down to a bite size level. But it’s disingenuous and a bit too “micro” to be accurate.

Finally, Obama mentioned that global demand for oil has gone up! It may seem like an excuse but it’s true.

The president touted increased oil and natural gas production as a success of his policy after insisting, “The most important thing we can do is make sure that we control our own energy.” His administration is hardly responsible though.

Increases in oil production have happened almost exclusively on private land, particularly in North Dakota, while the natural gas boom is due to technological advances in shale—technologies which most Democrats oppose although Obama said he now “encourages” it.

As Mitt Romney pointed out, however, oil and gas production on federal lands has actually decreased. The president’s administration has refused to open more areas, in Alaska, off the Atlantic coastline, in Colorado and Wyoming, to drilling. Combined, these regions are estimated to hold over two hundred billion barrels of oil that are recoverable with today’s technology. If fully developed, it would be enough to free America from the import of foreign oil for almost fifty years.

Gasoline prices have skyrocketed in the last four years, from an average of .83 per gallon when Obama took office to .80 last week.

Mitt Romney starting by talking about making college affordable is curious, since he is advocating putting the middleman right back into the college loan system. This was a totally unnecessary addition to the college loan process that only benefited the loan industry, with the Federal Government taking the risk and the cost. It’s a good example of the recent Republican tendency to oppose reform if it’s Obama doing it.

The president then came off his chair in a fiery way, clearly more comfortable with this format and excited to change the game. His pivot to telling a college student about manufacturing jobs is odd though. Note that Keynesian theory, something Obama publicly embraced early in his presidency, was something of an afterthought in his answer.

It was really strange, however, for the early part of the debate to focus so much on the auto industry. Do college kids really care?

In contrast to the first debate two weeks ago, the candidates will have an opportunity tonight to hash out some of their differences in foreign and national security policy. President Obama has consistently scored higher marks on foreign policy than his Republican opponent but that lead has narrowed over the past few weeks due to the administration’s fuzzy explanations of the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The murder of Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans will probably come up in a question tonight.

The Romney campaign has doubled down on the Benghazi fallout, suggesting that the Obama Administration misled the American people on messaging after the attack. Vice President Joe Biden’s assertion during last week that the White House did not know about requests for extra security were technically accurate—the State Department handles such requests—but landed him in hot water. Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, in addition to Republicans in Congress, have hammered the point home all week long.

The president needs to do some straight talking to the American people and stem the bleeding on this particular issue. He may want to point out that it was not the administration but Republicans in Congress who slashed the foreign affairs budget in the last three years. Money for embassy and consulate security has been cut in every proposed budget since the Republicans reclaimed control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Congressman Ryan played a key role in that as chairman of the House budget committee.

If Obama presses Romney on these facts, the latter will be forced to either defend the move or explain why he disagrees with his running mate.