The last debate wasn’t just about foreign policy. It was about the diverse and difficult responsibilities of being president of the United States.
“Bullfight critics ranked in rows crowd the enormous plaza full, but he’s the only one who knows, and he’s the man who fights the bull.”
For me, that sums up the debate. The president won. He was the commander-in-chief and he played a strong hand well. This isn’t a foreign policy blog, but if you step back from the absurdities of the charge/counter-charge of a campaign, he and Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta have carried out foreign policy well in an incredibly difficult and confusing time.
Governor Romney did not do badly, but he is like a pilot: there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. He doesn’t have any particularly new ideas, and the ones he hints at having are either profoundly wrong, profoundly dangerous, or both.
“Hint” is a good verb. He hints at deep disapproval. He’d be stronger, firmer, altogether better. Events would be less disorderly, and the world would dance to his commands. But he actually wouldn’t do anything differently. Stay in Iraq or Afghanistan? Divorce Pakistan? Invade Iran? Put troops in Syria? Really show China what’s what? On all of these issues you get the impression that he actually doesn’t have a different policy; he is depending on his strong jaw and magnetic personality to command events. Should he actually win, his policy would be exactly the same, except he might actually get himself bullied into a hasty bombing campaign against Iran. Does anyone think “Bibi” wouldn’t be over in a heartbeat to collect his receivable?
The major preoccupation of that alternate universe White House would be attempting to demonstrate constantly that there was some sort of difference from the Obama policies. Heck, maybe the world really will sit up and do right with a President Romney. But trapped as he is between the neo-cons who have learned nothing and President Obama’s mostly successful policies, he was reduced to throat-clearing and ankle-biting. And if his whole approach depends on the argument that he’d do the same things but somehow better, you have to remember that this is man who managed to insult the United Kingdom over the management of the Olympics. (Yes, they used to be enemies, and we all remember the unpleasantness of 1812.)
This was all sort of fun. But I did have a somewhat deeper thought — a profound appreciation for America and for how tough being president is. A really long time ago, I was in a small group of appointees with President-elect Carter a month or so before the inauguration. (I know the fashion now is to be contemptuous of President Carter, but I’m not. I revered the man, loved working for him, and still revere him.) Anyway, I was mostly in such awe that I was even there — how did someone from Loudoun County High School get here? — that I couldn’t talk. But I could think, sort of. What I thought about was the two faces of the president’s job. On the one hand, he had to grapple with the actual issues, facts, and arguments as they affected the most important nation in the world, and then he had to turn around and persuade a nation of 225 million people (at that time).
I felt the same way 37 years later watching President Obama and this debate. You grapple with the most difficult possible issues of foreign policy, some completely unpredictable — at least, I haven’t seen the Romney crowd claim yet that they knew all about the Arab Spring. All of them are confusing, information is never particularly good, and most of the time getting the right thing done in one event runs right into the players and calculations involved in some other event. All you can do is approach each calmly, try to keep a larger framework intact, and live every time with the thought that you didn’t do it perfectly.
Then you have to turn around and debate your opponent, in front of millions, on the details of these policies. Your opponent doesn’t have to deal with all of them at the same time, as you do, and he makes it clear that he would have done everything perfectly. There is a lot you can’t say. Every syllable you utter is going to be parsed by every head of government in the world. And any big misstep can both screw up something big and cost you the presidency.
I could tell that President Obama was both frustrated and, at times, angry about being in this position. But you know what? It’s part of the deal. It’s what we do in America, and our presidents better be good enough to handle it. I thought President Obama more than met that test. I also thought again as I looked around the bar where I watched this debate en route, a bar that was packed full with maybe half of the audience foreign-born, how proud I am to be a citizen of the country that holds these debates and doesn’t think they are anything special.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.