Having watched the first three debates at 3 a.m. in Europe, it was a relief to witness the final one during my stopover in South Florida, only twenty minutes away from the Boca Raton debate site and at the more civilized time frame of nine p.m.
From the outset it was clear the momentum was in President Obama's favor after the beating he gave Mitt Romney last week. The former Massachusetts governor started off awkwardly in response to moderator Bob Schieffer's question about Libya. He tried to be funny, not one of his strongest attributes and appeared to lack confidence as he struggled to recite what he termed foreign policy mistakes the Obama administration had made.
The problem was his inconsistency. On the one hand he congratulated the president on taking out Osama bin Laden, then said we can't kill ourselves out of this mess. Obama, for his part, reminded Romney that his primary job was to keep America safe by ending the war in Iraq, focusing on those who perpetrated the killings in 2001, transitioning out of Afghanistan and rebuilding alliances.
Although Romney was articulate at times, it was mostly in segments wherein he was well rehearsed, repeating unpleasant economic statistics, even though they've been slowly improving, and misstating or misleading the president's deeds. He charged the president with screwing things up in Libya regarding the assassination of the U.S. ambassador, while Obama reminded him how he organized the international coalition that got rid of Kadafi and that thousands of Libyans in Benghazi demonstrated their support of America.
In addition, Romney seemed to mimic Joe Biden's unfortunate display of facial disparagement, and although the grins weren't as wide the split screen employed during the debate showed a continual array of condescending smirks as Obama spoke. I was intrigued to note that none of the commentators I watched on CNN or NBC made note of this trait, even as the president mostly was viewed listening intently to what Romney was saying.
Through it all, and no matter what Romney tossed at Obama the president respectfully but forcefully threw it back, indicating that what had been said wasn't true and that Romney was all over the map in his pronouncements. Romney persisted in his belief that America was weak and that the international community felt so, too. Obama responded that the nation was stronger than when he took office and now had renewed respect all over the globe.
Romney reiterated what has become his mantra, the economy, a stronger military and a balanced budget, never stating how he would pay for it. Though the debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, Romney kept introducing economic issues, almost as if to underscore his deficiencies in the subject at hand. Yes, he recited certain facts demonstrating some rote knowledge of international relations, but often spoke in platitudes without saying what he would do differently. Many times he said he agreed with President Obama, not only about the killing of Osama bin Laden -- which the president reminded him he had once thought not significant enough to pursue -- but also in his dealings with Pakistan, which Romney obsessively harped nervously about because of that nation's possession of nuclear weapons.
In one memorable exchange Romney accused the president of a diminished navy with fewer ships than since World War I. Obama sarcastically and effectively schooled Romney in the nature of modern warfare, saying that we also don't have as many horses and bayonets as we once had and that we have these new things called aircraft carriers upon which many planes could take off and land.
A testier moment came when Romney indicated that Obama had visited Middle East nations, but pointedly not Israel as if to indicate the president's disinterest and/or to prove his support of Israel was not particularly strong. This was a rehash of comments in a previous debate suggesting Obama had snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the recent opening session of the United Nations.
Obama seemed particularly annoyed at this and reminded the GOP candidate about his trip during his presidential campaign in 2008, when he visited U.S. troops in the war zone and also went to Israel. He'd gone to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and to an area where missiles had fallen, taking the time to console those who'd suffered losses. He contrasted that with Romney's July 2012 trip to Israel, taking along some of his top donors and to raise cash while visiting the country. He topped it off asking the viewers who they thought was more credible, be it on Israel, Iran, counter-terrorism and women's rights.
Romney continued to cast aspersions about what he deemed President Obama's "apology tour" and that countries such as Iran thought us weak. Obama responded that this was discounted by numerous fact checkers and that his administration placed the toughest crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime. In a go-around about China the president said U.S. exports had doubled, the currency exchange was the most advantageous since 1993 and then charged former Governor Romney with investing in a Chinese oil company.
In a final assault, when Romney tried to deflect his position on the General Motors bankruptcy, which the president said would have caused the company's ruin, Romney insisted he'd never done so, leading the president to interrupt, "Check the record.... he's trying to airbrush history."
At the end most of the media, even those who tended to neutralize his and Biden's prior wins, declared that Obama had, in David Gergen's words, "won on points." Even so, there was an almost neurotic need for the media to keep the election neck and neck saying that Romney had the momentum coming in, even after his thrashing by the president last week and that at the least he had passed the test of looking like a commander in chief. I'm not sure what they meant, except in the sense that he would surely look so on an 8x10 photograph, auditioning for the job in a film or TV show.
Time will tell if the principal matter of hand, the economy, can be persuasively explained away by a president and vice president who inherited a financial disaster that in statistical terms has slowly made progress. Whether it is enough, along with the extraordinary social reforms that have taken place, a health plan for the first time in American history, gays in the military and without the consequences spread by fear-mongers, immigration support for kids without papers who want to go to school and contribute to our country -- these are the questions Americans will have to weigh, as opposed to taking a chance on a return to policies which caused the financial mess in the first place. I'm betting that Americans will see through Romney's flip-flop opportunism and Paul Ryan's right-wing agenda, giving Obama and Biden the win.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com