Whoever wins the US presidency on 6 November will owe little of their success to foreign policy. A recent poll showed that 46 per cent of the electorate regards the economy as the most important issue of the election; just 6 per cent chose foreign policy. The tightness of this race meant that the foreign policy debate still had the potential to influence matters, but a stilted format contributed to a rather stale exchange last night. Barack Obama produced a more compelling performance, but when he wakes up it will not be to the sort of collective mood shift Mitt Romney enjoyed after the Denver debate. The essence of this campaign remains as it was 24 hours ago: as in 2000 and 2004, America’s choice of President could well come down to the Electoral College votes of a single state.
By reducing the foreign policy areas on which the two disagreed, Romney would have hoped to claw back some of Obama’s ground on foreign policy and keep voters’ focus on the economy. Though it was a sound strategy, Obama proved more effective this time around at attacking ‘Moderate Mitt’. He drew attention to Romney’s notorious policy flip-flops such as his stance on troop numbers in Iraq and, in a way many observers felt he should have in the previous two debates, Obama was much more explicit in linking Romney to the previous Republican president, arguing that he represented a return to the war-mongering and record deficits of the Bush years.
Obama was pugnacious in making his case. He mounted a good defence of his record – something he had to do, because almost every American holds Obama in much greater regard for what he has done overseas than at home. He tried to paint himself as a courageous president, telling the debate he had ordered Osama bin Laden’s killing, despite advice to the contrary from his Vice-President.
Romney’s ripostes failed to sparkle; his balancing act of simultaneously agreeing with the bulk of Obama’s foreign policy actions and future plans, from Iraq to Afghanistan and China to bin Laden, while maintaining that Obama had weakened America’s standing in the world proved impossible to pull off. On Romney’s planned military spending hikes – the most substantive policy foreign policy difference between the two candidates – Obama got in the most memorable line of the night, responding to Romney’s complaint about declining ship numbers by saying: ‘We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.’
But as a rather wonkish detour to small business development in Massachusetts during Romney’s term as Governor illustrated, there was no escaping the spectre of the economy.
Romney knows where his strengths are and it was unsurprising that he turned the conversation back to the economy wherever possible, painting a reinvigorated domestic economy as the centrepiece of his foreign policy.
Even so, Obama enjoyed his best debate of the campaign; indeed, he could rightly claim to have won the past two debates. The memory of that night in Denver – which resulted in the largest post-debate polling shift in the past seven presidential contests – still remains, but Obama has displayed resilience since.
His recovery mirrors George W. Bush’s own campaign in 2004. Bush was thumped by John Kerry in the first debate, regained some ground in the next two debates and then just about held on for re-election, with Ohio the decisive state. Obama will require a similar rearguard. And, while the performance of the President will have helped his cause a little, it is now get-out-the-vote groups in swing states that will largely determine the fate of the election.