The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Obama's bumpy week

The debates begin

The two candidates met for their first head-to-head debate on Tuesday night -- an encounter almost universally agreed to have been won by Mitt Romney. The debate was focused on domestic policy, but the rest of the world did come up a few times. Romney noted that, "Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain." The statement provoked some backlash from Spanish reporters and politicians, and is slightly misleading, as well: Spain actually spends 46 percent and the American figure includes state and local expenditures as well.

Romney also promised to "open up more trade, particularly in Latin America" and "crack down on China if and when they cheat." Employing a popular applause line from the campaign trail, Romney also vowed to "eliminate all programs by this test -- if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?"

Barack Obama, who appeared somewhat listless throughout the debate and unable to effectively defend his record, returned to national security when summing up his accomplishments as president. Describing his willingness to "take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican," the president said, "That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That's how we repealed ‘don't ask, don't tell.' That's how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that's how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That's how we went after al Qaeda and bin Laden."

The two also clashed on defense spending, with Romney arguing, "We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military." Obama countered that Romney's pledge to provide "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for" is economically unsustainable.

The two candidates will meet again on Oct. 16 for a town hall debate that will feature foreign and domestic policy and a final debate on Oct. 22 focused entirely on international issues.

Romney on the attack

Romney is likely hoping to capitalize on the momentum from his debate performance, and part of that will be renewed attacks on the president's handling of national security. Romney is scheduled to give a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. He still trails Obama in polls asking voters which candidate they trust more as commander in chief, though Obama's foreign-policy numbers have been slipping in the wake of the recent turmoil in the Middle East.

Romney's speech may continue themes raised in a Wall Street Journal  op-ed on Monday which criticized the president's handling of the crises in Libya, Syria, and over Iran's nuclear program. "[A]mid this upheaval, our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies," Romney wrote.

On domestic policy, Romney seemed in the debate to have moved away from the Tea Party-influenced rhetoric on spending cuts and tax breaks that he has employed since the GOP primary toward more centrist positions, prompting Obama to quip, "When I got on the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney." The VMI speech will be an indication of whether a similar shift is underway on Romney's approach to foreign policy.

Benghazi backlash

The Obama administration continues to face criticism for its handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, three weeks ago, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Asked on 60 Minutes on Sunday if recent events in the Middle East had caused him to reconsider U.S. support for the Arab Spring, Obama replied, "I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy [and] universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance," Obama said. "But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam. The one part of society that hasn't been controlled completely by the government. There are strains of extremism, and anti-Americanism, and anti-Western sentiment."

Republicans have seized on the "bumps in the road" remark, with Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul, saying "After nearly four years in office, President Obama is eager to make excuses for his failed policies at home and abroad by declaring ‘bumps in the road.'" Former candidate Newt Gingrich was more blunt, tweeting, "It is disgusting to have Obama describe the killing of an ambassador and three other Americans as 'a bump in the road' on 60 minutes." White house spokesperson Jay Carney countered that suggestions that the president was referring to the killing of Stevens in his remarks were "desperate and offensive."

The State Department began a review this week into the circumstances of the Benghazi attack and what security lapses may have occurred. Critics have asked why the ambassador was in such a lightly defended compound in a city where militant violence had recently occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. FBI investigators finally arrived in Benghazi on Thursday, three weeks after the attack and after the site had already been picked over by looters and reporters. Some officials have suggested that the State Department dragged its feet in securing a security escort for the agents, though the administration blames the Libyan government for the delay. 

When will Syria be an issue?

The crisis in Syria showed worrying signs of inflaming the wider region this week when Turkey shelled targets within Syria in retaliation for a Syrian Army mortar attack that killed a woman and three children in Akcakale, Turkey. The Turkish parliament has authorized further military action, though it does not appear likely that there will be a larger military response for the time being. NATO called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, though there has been no discussion yet of invoking Article 5, which would obligate the alliance to come to the aid of member state Turkey. The U.S. State Department called Turkey's actions "appropriate" and "proportional" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed outrage at the Syrian mortar attack.  

The possible internationalization of the conflict raises the question of whether the Syria crisis will become more of an issue in the campaign. The Romney campaign has accused the president of having "dragged his feet" in response to the crisis and a "lack of leadership" but Romney has provided few specifics on how he would handle Syria differently other than being "more assertive."  In his Wall Street Journal article, Romney noted that, "In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered" but didn't address the crisis further.

Looking ahead to the VP debate

The major political event of next week will be Thursday's vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Democrats are hoping for a strong performance from Joe Biden to stop the GOP's momentum. In the debate, which will include both foreign and domestic policy, Paul Ryan may be looking to establish his national security bona fides in a debate with the more experienced Biden. Ryan has lately been taking up the attacks on the administration's handling of Benghazi, telling radio host Laura Ingraham, "We've seen a confused, slow, inconsistent response to what is now very clearly known as a terrorist act."

The latest from FP:

Peter Feaver, Clyde Prestowitz, and Dan Drezner shared their thoughts on the debate.

Uri Friedman looks at the 10 best foreign-policy moments from debates past.

John Norris lists 6 campaign gaffes that really mattered.

David Rothkopf says it's time to start thinking about 2013.

Aaron David Miller slams Romney's Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Michael Cohen says the Pentagon doesn't actually care about the national debt.

Issac Stone Fish imagines what would happen if U.S. political hacks covered China's horse race.

Plus: Follow the latest from the campaign on The Cable and Passport.



The global crises we'll resolve after Nov. 6

This week brought two related pieces of news. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the U.S.-Russian "reset" cannot "last forever" and suggested that the two sides "update the software" to avoid a "program failure." And U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic reported that the international body will hold a debate in mid-November on whether to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. status to an "observer state."

What's the connection between the two developments? Both leaders suggested that action would be deferred on these issues for the same reason: the U.S. presidential election. "It is evident that some important things will have to be postponed until after the election marathon in the U.S., Lavrov observed. "The electoral rhetoric beyond the ocean will soon subside to give way to meticulous day-to-day work." Jeremic was more cryptic. "There are electoral and political calendars in many parts of the world," he pointed out in explaining why the United Nations was scheduling the debate when it was.

Even the new leader of Georgia appears to have gotten the message. On Wednesday, Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that his first foreign visit will be to the United States -- but not right away. "Although I have already been invited," he added, "I have asked to postpone the visit until after the [U.S.] presidential election." 

To varying degrees, presidential elections have always thrown sand in the gears of U.S. foreign policy (the most famous example is Iran releasing U.S. hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan's election). And we've known for awhile now that some of the most critical global issues facing the United States would be in a holding pattern as the race heated up. There was President Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense after the election. And Congress leaving town in August without acting on a slew of agenda items -- from looming defense cuts (so-called sequestration) to Russia-related bills on trade and human rights. 

But in recent weeks we've gotten one reminder after another of the magnitude of the deferred decisions that will greet the next president of the United States. In an interview with the Washington Post's David Ignatius in late September, for example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that Iran would only be able to strike a deal with world powers on its nuclear program after the U.S. race. "Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections," he argued. "I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States."

During a U.N. General Assembly speech several days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to back away from the possibility of striking Iran's nuclear facilities in the lead-up to the U.S. election, asserting that Iran's nuclear development wouldn't cross his "red line" until the spring or summer. Netanyahu, however, has denied that the U.S. contest influences his decision-making. "What's guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran," he recently told an Israeli newspaper, adding that the latter don't stop spinning just because America is choosing a new leader.

Earlier in September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that the 2012 campaign might explain why the United States hasn't supported more aggressive action in Syria such as implementing a no-fly zone or arming the Syrian opposition. "Maybe it's because of the elections -- maybe it's because of the pre-election situation in the States," he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "Might be the root cause of this lacking of initiative. Nobody has spoken to us about their reasons, and they are not obliged to state anything."

Abdulbaset Sieda, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, has gone further -- accusing the United States of forsaking the Syrian rebels because of domestic politics. "We would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for the Syrians," he declared in July. "We cannot understand that a superpower ignores the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians because of an election campaign that a president may win or lose."

There's also been speculation that the Obama administration is lobbying eurozone leaders to keep Greece in the monetary union until after November, in an effort to avoid shocks to world markets. Last month, Reuters reported that an EU-IMF report on Greece's precarious debt situation might be delayed because of the U.S. campaign. "The Obama administration doesn't want anything on a macroeconomic scale that is going to rock the global economy before November 6," an unnamed EU official informed the news agency. But a Greek official later denied the report, and a U.S. official said the communications with EU leaders were intended not to secure Obama's reelection but rather to protect America's fragile economic recovery.  

So there you have it: critical global issues such as the Syrian crisis, U.S.-Russian reset, U.N. debate on Palestine, and Iranian-Israeli nuclear standoff all in limbo as Americans head to the polls. That's a pretty daunting set of challenges for the next president. And we haven't even mentioned the fiscal cliff.

Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty Images