WASHINGTON -- How they debated reflected where they stand in the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign. President Barack Obama wanted to shake things up. Mitt Romney wanted to settle things down.
Obama, who’s watched with alarm as he’s lost his lead and now finds himself locked in a neck-and-neck struggle, worked throughout the 90-minute debate Monday to assert himself as the surefooted leader while belittling his opponent as an inexperienced know-nothing who could stumble the country back into war.
Romney, often talking past Obama, used the 90-minute debate on foreign policy and national security to cast himself as a temperate, diplomatic-minded leader who could be trusted to keep the country and its allies safe. Having pulled even with the incumbent, Romney was trying to convince wavering voters that he’s a safe alternative.
The final debate between the two tested how the two major party candidates view their roles – and their political fortunes – at a moment when the American psyche is changing from the fear and anger about terror attacks that dominated U.S. politics after the 2001 attacks to the disillusionment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, Americans rallied to the steely resolve of George W. Bush and the Republicans.
“When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right," former President Bill Clinton said.
Since then, though, Americans have lost interest, as the threat from terrorism has diminished and the economy turned more perilous.
Obama approached the debate weeks ago with a perfect resume for the times – the aura of an experienced commander-in-chief who ended an unpopular war in Iraq, rains death on al Qaida operatives from an air force of pilotless drones that pose no risk to U.S. troops, and gave the order that killed Osama bin Laden.
But the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya turned Obama vulnerable on the issues he once thought his strongest suit. And a weak performance in his first debate on Oct. 3 ended what looked like an Obama surge and turned the race into a close contest.
Obama looked to change the momentum back to his favor Monday by calling himself strong and right – stressing his experience and undermining Romney’s.
“My first job as commander-in-chief . . . is to keep the American people safe. And that’s what we’ve done over the last four years,” he said.
He stressed strength, though the tempered strength that does not endanger U.S. lives in a war as in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map,” he said at one point.
He repeatedly criticized Romney, a former governor, as inexperienced – and wrong.
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy,” he said to Romney. “But every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
At another, he ridiculed Romney for proposing to build up the Navy.
“Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” he said.