The final debate of the 2012 campaign season presented a sharp contrast between one man who seemed comfortable in the role of commander-in-chief and another man who seemed unsure of his political fortunes and desperate to tear down his opponent. Such a contrast often appears when a presidential race features an incumbent and a challenger.
But have we ever seen the contrast so vividly and so paradoxically in reverse?
For the man who seemed comfortable as commander-in-chief was the challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney, and the man who seemed desperate and running from behind was the incumbent, President Barack Obama.
The Obama campaign has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to paint Romney as an unacceptable choice to be president. Obama’s surrogates have published countless articles trying to argue that Romney is unfit to be commander-in-chief.
Romney’s calm and commanding performance in the foreign policy debate rendered such attacks risible. And this is not just the view of sympathetic viewers like me. In CNN’s poll of those who watched the debate, 60 percent said Romney had passed the commander-in-chief test. And the PPP poll of independents showed Romney winning decisively on whether the debate made the viewers more or less likely to vote for a candidate: 47 percent of independents said watching the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney and 48 percent said it made them less likely to vote for Obama.
To be sure, other polls showed that viewers thought Obama had “won” the debate, in the sense of landing more blows on his opponent. Obama came equipped with pre-scripted zingers, and he delivered them whether or not they were relevant to the topic. But they seemed petty when compared to the importance of the issues and, more problematically for the president, they betrayed a campaign bereft of big ideas or a clear agenda.
By contrast, Romney did not spend a lot of time attacking Obama, instead using his time to lay out a broader strategic vision for America’s role in the world and an ambitious agenda for the next four years.
Obama did well enough if he were the challenger seeking to make it over the commander-in-chief threshold. Yet, like someone acting in a challenger role, he made quite a few reckless statements that might come back to haunt him. He gave a fundamentally deceptive account of his Iraq policy, pretending that he had not sought a Status of Forces Agreement to allow troops to remain in Iraq. His pre-scripted zinger comparing the U.S. Navy to outdated cavalry and bayonets seemed oddly unaware of how our military leaders view his deep cuts to defense procurement – and the sailors who must endure longer sea-tours because of Obama’s cuts probably were not laughing at the joke.
But Obama is not the challenger, he is the incumbent with his own foreign policy record. And while the public did give him generally high marks for foreign policy in the past, ever since the campaign has started to focus on his actual record, his polling numbers in this area have started to drop.
Obama has some successes, but they almost all have come where he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and where he has embraced Republican policies, such as the drone war and the hunt for Bin Laden. Where he has tried to follow his own instincts, whether it is the Russian reset, or the tough-on-Israel approach to Middle East Peace negotiations or the closing of the Gitmo terrorist detention center, he has failed.
More revealingly, Obama has presided over a dysfunctional and politicized national security process. While informed Republican observers have been making this case for years, they are not the only ones. Independent journalists like Bob Woodward and James Mann have likewise pointed out the problematic way Obama has handled national security.
But the most devastating criticism of all is the one written by an Obama insider, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rosa Brooks. In two breathtaking recent columns published on the ForeignPolicy.com website, “The Case for Intervention and “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again!”, Brooks pulls back the curtain and shows that the critiques of outsiders are not only true, they might even be understated.
Brooks' courageous and uncompromising account documents what she witnessed from inside the Obama national security team:
• An administration substituting a laundry list of aspirations for a strategy.
• A president lacking a “clear strategic foreign policy vision.”
• An interagency process bereft of decent management and “in a state of permanent crisis,” “constant meetings [that] produce only inconclusive results.”
• A personnel system where “nepotism trumps merit,” where “young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios,” and where a hostile command climate “demoralizes everyone and sends the message that rudeness and infighting are acceptable.” Brooks’ harsh recommendation: “Get some people who actually know something” and “Get rid of the jerks.”
• A White House trapped inside a bubble, where even senior players on the National Security staff have no access to the top decision makers.
• A president lacking a “backbone.”
This is a damning indictment of the Obama tenure, and perhaps Romney should have made some of it in the foreign policy debate. However, Romney may well have done what he needed to do to earn the right to try to fix the system.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy. This commentary was first published in The News & Observer.