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Character Matters at the Foreign Policy Debate

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Posted on Oct 22, 2012
AP/Charles Dharapak

President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney share the stage during their second debate last week at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

By The Rev. Madison Shockley

President Obama is fired up and ready to go for the foreign policy debate Monday night, and he should begin in his opening statement by asking the American people, “Are you safer now than you were four years ago?”

In his last debate, Obama was strong and ably defended his record on domestic affairs. Like an Olympic gymnast, he landed without a flaw. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, became unnerved and rattled by an animated opponent and a firm and determined moderator, Candy Crowley.

Now, Obama should build on that performance by celebrating his handling of foreign affairs. The fact is, only four years after George W. Bush was in command of the nation’s safety, we are much better off. The primary evidence for this, of course, is the president’s laser focus on the “war on terror,” the death of Osama bin Laden and many in his network, and the prevention of numerous terrorist attacks. Obama might then remind the audience and his opponent of his other foreign policy accomplishments, including the end of the misguided war in Iraq, the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and the punishing international sanctions on Iran—an attempt to avoid the all-out war that Romney flirts with on a routine basis.

Obama is carefully navigating the stormy and unpredictable climate of the Arab Spring. When Benghazi comes up, as it did in the previous debate last week at Hofstra University in New York, Obama should again accept responsibility (very presidential) but remind Romney, and the nation, that the only reason we are even talking about Benghazi is because a coalition of NATO forces succeeded in defeating a dictator and liberating the Libyan people, many of whom have expressed outrage over the terrorist attack that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead.

Then the president should pivot to make the case that with Syria in turmoil, now is not the time to let the accidental tourist, Mitt Romney, take the helm as commander in chief. Obama should remind voters that when Romney went to England and Israel, he left a hot diplomatic mess that, were he actually president, would have been a setback to U.S. global leadership. Then Obama should explain how Romney’s blustering neoconservative posture is dangerous to the United States and the world.


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The president will need to find bridges from distant foreign policy concerns to domestic issues that fire up his base and move undecided voters. Immigration is a perfect example. Obama has issued the executive order version of the Dream Act to give young undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation. Romney says he would not have done so, but will not rescind it. The president can have a lot of fun with Romney’s statements to Rick Perry during the Republican primaries on that topic. Romney is on record as being against “magnets” of immigration like the Dream Act.

Other crossings are also available to Obama. When Romney went to Israel he held a big-donor breakfast (always a dangerous setting for Romney). There, trying to impress, he explained to attendees the reasons for the superiority of the Israeli economy compared with the Palestinian one. His study had shown him that whenever there are disparate economic outcomes in adjacent countries, “culture makes all the difference ... ” (and it doesn’t hurt to have God on your side). He even referred to “a discussion [he] had across the country in the United States” on this topic. I wonder if he had one of those discussions in Florida? His comments about side-by-side cultures would be totally consistent with his remarks about those Americans, living next door to the 53 percent who pay federal income taxes, who “refuse to take personal responsibility or care for their lives.” Yes, Mitt, culture makes all the difference.

This debate is taking place at the very scene of the 47 percent crime, Boca Raton, Fla. The president should make sure no one misses the irony of the location. If this down-the-middle metaphor gets past Obama, who showed a willingness to swing at everything in the last debate, then shame on him. Yes, this final debate is on the sole topic of foreign policy. But, with so much unresolved, Obama needs to feel free to discuss what he deems most important to the voters. One of the reasons that so many matters are still unclear is because Romney has constantly changed his positions, or at least his presentations, of the issues that count in this election. The strategy of the Obama campaign has been to portray Romney as the extreme conservative he claimed to be during the Republican primaries. Suddenly, with the emergence of “moderate Mitt,” the campaign has shifted its previous line of attack to a “flip flopper” critique. I suggest that it fold those two approaches into a broader analysis of Romney’s candidacy. Namely, that Romney lacks an essential quality for anyone who aspires to the office of president: character. Romney’s pandering, lack of personal transparency (lying), denial of statements he himself has made (lying again), misrepresentation of “studies” he cites in support of his economic policies (still lying) and penchant for clandestine truth-telling and public obfuscation all build the case for his poor character.

Obama should close with a strong statement of his vision for the next term of his presidency. This should include: (1) The establishment of state health insurance exchanges, the expansion of Medicaid, the strengthening of Medicare, subsidies for middle-class families to buy health insurance and other elements necessary for the final implementation of the Affordable Care Act. (2) Passing the American Jobs Act to reignite the economy, rebuild the physical infrastructure of the nation’s roads, bridges and airports and invest in the education of workers for 21st century positions. (3) Comprehensive immigration reform to bring 12 million people out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American life. (4) Reform of tax policy to set the nation fully and finally on a course to reduce our debt and secure Social Security for future generations. (5) Expanding the opportunity and freedom of all Americans, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, to vote, marry, work, serve our nation and pursue happiness, free of discrimination.

That is what I see in a second Obama term. Now the president just needs to say it out loud so the American people can hear it.

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