BOCA RATON, Fla. President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney spent their final debate Monday circling the globe’s hot spots as they clashed over the merits of diplomacy and brinkmanship in Libya, Israel, Iran, the Middle East and other volatile areas.
But they also managed to get in digs at their opponents’ economic plans.
The topic of the 90-minute clash at Lynn University was foreign policy, which polls show is not a major concern of most Americans as they prepare to vote Nov. 6. About one-third of the way through the debate, Obama and Romney turned the talk to the economy, the issue that is overwhelmingly most on voters’ minds.
A strong America, Romney said, must have a strong economy. “America must lead and for that to happen we have to (fix) our economy here at home,” he said.
Obama, too, wanted to talk about the economy. He talked about education — a topic rarely mentioned during the first two debates — and charged that Romney’s policies would do little to reduce class sizes and support teachers. Slashing support for education “is not good for America’s position in the world, and the world notices.”
Romney cited his record as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, arguing he supported teachers. Obama tried to interrupt and charge Romney was not so generous to education.
The debate’s main purpose was to give voters a measure of how each candidate would act as commander in chief, and both men tried to portray themselves as resolute and reasonable.
Obama charged that Romney was tied to policies of the past. “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” the president said.
Romney, he explained, wanted more troops in Iraq and has a confused, changing Afghanistan policy.
What’s needed is “strong, steady leadership,” Obama said. Romney’s plan, he added, “is not a recipe for American strength.” The president recalled Romney’s characterization of Russia as a major U.S. foe.
“The ’80s is calling, asking for its foreign policy back,” Obama said,
Romney fought back. “Of course I don’t concur with what the president said about my own record. They don’t happen to be accurate,” Romney said. “Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not (how to) deal with challenges in the Middle East.”
The debate began with Obama vigorously defending U.S. policies. “It’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya,” Obama said. He recalled how the U.S. “organized an international coalition,” without involving U.S. troops on the ground, which helped topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
“I have to tell you that your strategy previously has been one that is all over the map” and not equipped to help American interests in the Middle East, he said.
Romney labeled his strategy “straightforward.” The major strategy, he said, is to “make sure we go after leaders of these various anti-American groups and these jihadists.”
Romney began the debate methodically recalling the turbulent events of the last few years. “What we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal of the kind of hopes we had for that reason,” Romney said.
“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said. “We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.”
Obama cited his record, saying al-Qaida’s leadership had been “decimated,” and how his policies have allowed the United States to rebuild alliances and combat future threats. One way to do that, he said, was to push more economic development, education, gender equality and adherence to the rule of law.