WASHINGTON — How they debated reflected where they stand in the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign. President Barack Obama wanted to shake things up. Mitt Romney wanted to settle things down.
Obama, who’s watched with alarm as he’s lost his lead and now finds himself locked in a neck-and-neck struggle, worked throughout the 90-minute debate Monday to assert himself as the surefooted leader while belittling his opponent as an inexperienced know-nothing who could stumble the country back into war.
Romney, often talking past Obama, used the 90-minute debate on foreign policy and national security to cast himself as a temperate, diplomatic-minded leader who could be trusted to keep the country and its allies safe. Having pulled even with the incumbent, Romney was trying to convince wavering voters that he’s a safe alternative.
The final debate between the two tested how the two major party candidates view their roles – and their political fortunes – at a moment when the American psyche is changing from the fear and anger about terror attacks that dominated U.S. politics after the 2001 attacks to the disillusionment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, Americans rallied to the steely resolve of George W. Bush and the Republicans.
“When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right," former President Bill Clinton said.
Since then, though, Americans have lost interest, as the threat from terrorism has diminished and the economy turned more perilous.
Obama approached the debate weeks ago with a perfect resume for the times – the aura of an experienced commander-in-chief who ended an unpopular war in Iraq, rains death on al Qaida operatives from an air force of pilotless drones that pose no risk to U.S. troops, and gave the order that killed Osama bin Laden.
But the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya turned Obama vulnerable on the issues he once thought his strongest suit. And a weak performance in his first debate on Oct. 3 ended what looked like an Obama surge and turned the race into a close contest.
Obama looked to change the momentum back to his favor Monday by calling himself strong and right – stressing his experience and undermining Romney’s.
“My first job as commander-in-chief . . . is to keep the American people safe. And that’s what we’ve done over the last four years,” he said.
He stressed strength, though the tempered strength that does not endanger U.S. lives in a war as in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map,” he said at one point.
He repeatedly criticized Romney, a former governor, as inexperienced – and wrong.
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy,” he said to Romney. “But every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
At another, he ridiculed Romney for proposing to build up the Navy.
“Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” he said.
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
For Obama, the approach was a new one, neither the bring-em-on bravado of George W. Bush in the post-2001 days nor the dovish approach his critics have claimed.
Romney worked a very different angle.
He did not attack Obama for the administration’s handling of the terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya. Instead, while vowing a strong American military and aggressive foreign policy, he wrapped that fist in a diplomatic globe meant to reassure the country and perhaps the world.
“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said of the Middle East. “We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism.”
He said he’d also use U.S. forces to hunt down and kill terrorists.
“But my strategy is broader than that,” he said. “The key that we’re going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.”
Mindful of the political fight here for women’s votes, he mentioned the need to help women overseas several times.
He said the Arab Spring, for example, promised “opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life and in economic life in the Middle East” but has not delivered. At another point, Romney included gender equality among his top goals to help stabilize the Middle East, along with economic development and education.
For Romney, accused by Obama at one point of being a throwback to the Cold War 1980s, the goal was another historical lesson from those days. When Ronald Reagan debated President Jimmy Carter in their one faceoff in 1980, Reagan dispelled the image of him a dangerous, inexperienced warmonger, and won the election.