In Debate, Romney Black-and-White While Obama Shows Shades of Gray

Watch the candidates’ full debate on foreign policy.

President Obama and Mitt Romney’s stances on foreign policy might not differ too drastically, but you wouldn’t know it by the way they talked Monday night, said two analysts we spoke to after the debate.

Romney painted the picture in black-and-white terms — more “us versus them” — while President Obama expressed things in a more nuanced way, said David Mislan, assistant professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University’s School of International Service. The president is “in the middle of it right now, and he doesn’t really have the liberty to speak in such clear terms about foreign policy because he’s conducting it.”

Take Israel, for example. One of the striking moments of the debate was when Romney highlighted President Obama’s relationship with Israel, saying he would have a much stronger relationship, Mislan said. “Obama responded by saying he does have a strong relationship with Israel, but it’s definitely been rocky under his administration than previous ones.”

But rhetoric aside, the candidates are actually similar in their support of Israel, said Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. They also come together in their opposition to Iran having a nuclear weapons program, and in the fight against al-Qaida and terrorism, he said.

Discussion Points
Photo of Mitt Romney, moderator Bob Schieffer and President Obama by Jason Reed/Reuters

Syria is another area of agreement. “Both candidates want to see a peaceful resolution to the civil war in Syria and both are talking about strong American leadership. But neither is willing to say they want to commit ground troops or even air power at this point,” said Mislan.

When the candidates addressed China, however — albeit briefly — Romney brought up the idea, as he has in the past, of China being a “currency manipulator,” Mislan continued, while Mr. Obama emphasized the United States’ interdependence with China and how such assertions are counterproductive. (Watch a NewsHour discussion on the candidates’ stances on China:)

Although there are few marked differences between the candidates on the substance of foreign policy, the voters aren’t really looking for them anyway, said Lieber. They just want to know the candidate has the personal wherewithal, the composure, gravitas and knowledge to handle America’s foreign policy responsibilities effectively, he said.

Especially this year, when the economy holds such a vise grip on the campaign, foreign policy takes a back seat, said Mislan. “It’s not like it was eight years ago, when we were fighting two wars.”

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