The last debate: a breakdown

Poli-sci professor Larry Jacobs gave his analysis.

by Marjorie Otto

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney battled it out once again Monday evening in the final presidential debate before the election in November. The debate, which focused on foreign policy, was hosted at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” moderated.

The topics discussed included issues in the Middle East like Syria, Libya and Iran’s nuclear threat.

At times, candidates got off-topic and forayed into domestic issues. While often disagreeing, both agreed that fixing the troubled economy was key to being a leader in the world.

The Minnesota Daily spoke with Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the candidates’ performances.


How did Bob Schieffer do moderating this debate?

The debates elevated the role of the moderator into an actor in the debates. What Schieffer did was frame the questions and then let the two candidates hash it out. There was a very nice balance of raising the questions and staying out of the fray with a few interventions to keep the conversation moving. I thought it was a really fabulous job on his part.

What did you think of the question about America’s role in the world? Both candidates got off-track with that question.

The reality is that about seven out of 10 Americans are identifying jobs and the economy as the single most important problem to face the country. Foreign policy is probably the president’s No. 1 priority along with national security. I think, for the candidates two weeks out from Election Day, they were quite intent on connecting foreign policy to domestic affairs. While some may see that as ducking the question, I think it is actually pretty important for Americans to make the link between why it’s important — our relationships with China, our relationships with other countries, the connection between those countries and our jobs at home — whether Americans are going to out-compete our competitors or these are potential customers that we need to work with. I think that both candidates are trying to make that connection, and they had a lot of motivation because they know Americans want to hear about the economy and jobs.

Did it seem as though Romney had a clear foreign policy mapped out?

Mitt Romney went into the debates with a tapestry of ideas that had not gelled into a policy. He comes out of the debate still without a clear foreign policy perspective. It’s almost as if he is reading policy briefs from different parts of the world. And he hasn’t really melded it into a way to think about America’s relationships with other countries. I think he looked mostly poised; I think some people could well see him as commander in chief now having seen him on the stage with the president, but I think for folks who know the issues well, there was a lot that he seemed unwilling or, perhaps at this stage, incapable of articulating clearly.

Now, in fairness, this is where President Obama has the strongest advantage. President Obama has been in training for four years. There is nothing that replaces doing it.

How would you rate Obama’s performance overall?

I think the president was very aggressive in challenging Mitt Romney’s reliability by raising questions about the feasibility and advisability of his policies. The No. 1 objective that President Obama had was to underscore the risk of switching horses midstream and having a president come in who had not really formed his ideas, who had moved about on certain issues. That was clearly Obama’s No. 1 strategy: raise that sense of risk, stir up that sense of uncertainty about whether America would be kept to the state of peace and a country that was able to exercise influence or whether we would end up in more wars and perhaps see our stature in the world decline.

Did Romney pass the “commander-in-chief test?” Why or why not?

I think that just by way of showing up on the stage and answering questions sitting next to the President of the United States, I think Mitt Romney grows in stature. He’s a smart guy, he’s generally articulate and I think that kind of elevated his presidentialism in the eyes of some voters. I think Mitt Romney’s No. 1 objective going into the debate was to lay out the number of areas in the world where America is struggling, or under attack, or seeing its influence waning, or finding its policies coming up short.

In the domestic debates, Romney’s strategy was basically to have a referendum on the economy, arguing that things are not as good as they should be. On foreign policy, it was a similar referendum where Romney was saying, in a sense, “We’re doing badly. The president is a nice guy, but his performance is just not up to snuff.” Romney’s case is less about Romney’s performance and vision, but more about limitations of the president.

What did you think of Obama’s “horses and bayonets” response?

If the president was kind of meek and mumbly in the first debate, he was flashing and almost a bit nasty in the third debate. He really kind of took the gloves off. The question is if that will turn off some voters. I would say that the “horse and bayonets” comment was an example of Obama knocking Romney about. There were a couple moments where Romney looked like a deer in the headlights because Obama came at him with such ferocity.

Romney and Obama seemed to agree on a lot of foreign policy tactics. What does this mean for foreign policy as a deciding factor in the election?

That’s a good question. The way I would put it is that Romney agreed with a lot of Obama’s foreign policy. I think what was going on there was that Romney was essentially trying to neutralize foreign policy as an advantage by the president by saying, “I agree with the president mostly.” So how could voters kind of hold that against Romney and instead have the election pivot mostly on how the economy is doing. Romney is very confident that he can win this election as a referendum on the high number of people who are unemployed and the struggle to turn the ship around.

Who do you believe “won” this debate?

I think each candidate got something out of it. Mitt Romney, by being on the stage and often holding his own, gained stature and credibility as commander in chief. I think President Obama surprised a lot of uncommitted voters who may not follow politics closely by his command of the issues. What might strike them as a mix of kind of hard-headed, kind of power politics, tough talk about standing up to Iran, killing Osama Bin Laden — these are really strong, kind of muscular language that you frankly more often hear from a Republican than a Democrat.

Obama combined that with a discussion about American jobs, the importance of diplomacy [and] how America’s influence has expanded by working with other countries. I think that this is evidence in the snap polls that were done that people became more impressed by the president’s command of foreign policy and this mix of kind of tough-guy power politics along with a more multinational diplomatic approach.

What difference does this debate have for the outcome of the election?

The first debate had enormous impact. We saw tremendous change where President Obama was up after the first debate; the race tightened considerably. Now we have this third debate, and what will be the effect? The way I would put it is while Obama and Romney are tied in national polls, President Obama has a slender but significant lead in the states that he needs to win in the Electoral College. I do not think the debate last night is going to provide Mitt Romney with enough of a bump to overcome that slender but stable lead that the president has. So I would say this is kind of a photo-finish election.