The final presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney focused on foreign policy, and each candidate outlined his vision for America’s role in the world during increasingly complex and often dangerous times. The Middle East continues to experience turmoil in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, al Qaeda remains an ongoing threat, and emerging competitors in the global marketplace are challenging America’s position in the world economy. Did either candidate emerge a leader on foreign policy? What differences in the candidates’ stated positions should voters take into consideration just weeks before the election?
Brookings expert Marvin Kalb responded to your questions about the debate in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO. Read the full transcript of the chat below.
12:30 Vivyan Tran: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.
12:31 Comment from Nicole: Every presidential debate since 1988 has mentioned climate change. Why did you believe the candidates ignored this topic during the debate when it is probably the most important issue the world’s facing right now?
12:32 Marvin Kalb: It was a mistake not to ask the question, and it was a mistake that the candidates did not bring it up. No doubt, it is a major issue facing any president, but because it is so loaded with politics, presidents have been reluctant to pursue it. Mistake all the way.
12:32 Comment from Taylor S.: Pundits have been saying that Romney’s foreign policy plan shares almost the same ideals and plans of attack that Obama has. Do you think this is accurate? What should the right wing be messaging differently?
12:37 Marvin Kalb: It’s rather fascinating, in fact, that Romney sounded during the debate as though he was fully supportive of Obama’s policy. But in fact he does have a different slant. He wishes to sound, and act, in a more muscular way. He suggests on Iran that he would be tougher than Obama, but offers no specifics. He suggests he would be tougher on China, but again offers no specifics. He wants to sound more friendly and supportive of Israel, but Obama already is supportive of Israel. So the bottom line is they are likely to follow a similar foreign policy, no matter who is elected.
12:37 Comment from Taylor S.: There was no mention of the Eurozone crisis on Monday’s debate, why was that? Is the Euro crisis suddenly not a concern for US foreign policy?
12:40 Marvin Kalb: Again, a big mistake. The question should have been asked by the moderator, or should have been raised by either Romney or Obama. Maybe neither did because they have no solutions to offer. This is primarily a big problem for Europe. The Europeans are struggling with it, but have produced no real solutions. Maybe none is possible until the Europeans are ready to take the next big step—go from economic integration to political integration. Politically, though, this is very difficult to do for any European politician. So the problem hangs, it gets worse and one day it will affect the US.
12:40 Comment from User in VT: Do you think either candidate came out a winner?
12:41 Marvin Kalb: I think Obama came out the winner but the bigger question is—how does that win affect the small group of Americans still undecided? My guess is that Romney’s big October 3 bounce has by now flattened and it’s a race to the finish now whether Obama can strengthen his small lead in the key swing states. If he can, he wins.
12:42 Comment from Marshall: “Foreign Policy” is so nuanced when you consider cultures, economics, and all the players in any given situation. Do you think debates like Monday’s are really a productive forum for exploring such nuanced issues?
12:45 Marvin Kalb: I favor debates. I think they are valuable tools for public education. Yes foreign policy is nuanced, but life is nuanced. A debate provides an opportunity for a limited exposition of the candidates’ views. That’s valuable because most Americans do not pay attention to the campaign until September. The debates represent mass education in quick time. I would like to see weekly debates in the last month of the campaign, so each debate is not so important but all the debates could form a good public education on the major issues at hand.
12:45 Comment from Anonymous: Do you think Romney has what it takes to represent America throughout the world?
12:47 Marvin Kalb: Yes I do, but when in office he is going to have to modify his positions, even more than he has up to this point in the campaign, if he hopes to get anywhere on the major issues facing the nation. On foreign policy, he will, I hope, surround himself with good, effective public officials who will help him represent the U.S. in a dignified and intelligent manner. But yes, overall, I think he can represent the U.S.
12:47 Comment from JC: How would you evaluate the news coverage of the debates this year? Do you think media interpretation of debates changes people’s opinions of the candidates? Or are people deciding for themselves?
12:51 Marvin Kalb: News coverage is essential to public understanding of the campaign and the candidates. Reporters have done well, but in a very circumscribed way. News organizations do not now have the money to send reporters all over the country. So reporters have to take short cuts. They stay close to their computers and cover the election, virtually, as it’s put. But what they report strongly influences public understanding, strongly influences polling, and then it’s circular: the polls are taken, the reporters report on the polls, and people get a kind of pre-digested reporting of reality. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we have.
12:52 Comment from Guest: The sense I’ve gotten from pundits is that most Americans do not care enough about foreign policy for the third debate to have made any real difference in the election. What would you say to someone who feels that way about the topic? Thank you.
12:54 Marvin Kalb: I think that is right. Most Americans do not care much about foreign policy, though they should. They especially care during this election cycle about the economy. That’s why the candidates returned to the economy even when they were supposed to talk about foreign policy. The shame is that people must learn, somehow, that they are part of the world in a very close way. What happens in Greece affects America, and vice versa, too. We are all wired now—all part of the same globe—whether we like it or not.
12:55 Comment from Abigail : What did you think of the moderation of Monday’s debate?
12:56 Marvin Kalb: I have worked with Bob Schieffer for many years. He is a pro, all the way. There were questions I wish he would have asked, but over all he did a very professional job—with dignity and fairness.
12:56 Comment from Ashley M: The debate largely ignored significant portions of the globe and focused on much of the Middle East. Will the next administration’s foreign policy do the same, or can we expect more attention to be paid to the US relationship with India, Latin America, Africa, etc?
1:00 Marvin Kalb: You are right—it did ignore large parts of the globe. No doubt, the next president will have to deal with these parts too. But ever since 9/11, the U.S. has been absorbed with the Middle East, and it is likely to continue for a long time. Oil is one reason. But there are many others, including strategic concerns affecting this huge corner of the world. Obama wants to “pivot” to Asia, but he may be forced by events to continue to be absorbed with the Middle East.
1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the questions everyone, see you next week!
Did either candidate emerge from the final presidential debate as a leader on foreign policy? What differences in the candidates’ stated positions should voters take into consideration just weeks before the election? On October 24, Brookings expert Marvin Kalb responded to your questions about the debate in a live web chat moderated by Vivyan Tran of POLITICO.
To subscribe or manage your subscriptions to our top event topic lists, please visit our event topics page.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.