Updated: 1:05 a.m.
President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney faced off in a sharp final debate Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla., trading barbs over foreign affairs while repeatedly returning to the issue atop voters’ minds — the economy.
Obama struck an aggressive tone from the start, repeatedly ripping into the GOP nominee as unreliable and reckless, while Romney sought to move to the center, putting forward a moderate image of someone who would use military force as a last resort.
Obama attacked Romney repeatedly for wanting to leave troops in Iraq, on Romney’s plan for $2 trillion in additional spending on defense over the next decade and for flipping his position on a host of foreign policy issues.
“I think Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama said about Romney’s complaint that there will be fewer ships in the Navy than in 1916.
“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them,” Obama said. “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
And Obama zinged Romney on his statement earlier this year that Russia was our biggest threat. “In the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said.
Obama also walked away from the automatic spending cuts he signed into law last year, known as the sequester, blaming them on Congress and saying they “will not happen.”
After days of Obama’s campaign hinting that Romney would keep America in “endless war,” Romney sought early on to soften his image.
“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney said, calling for economic development aid, education and even gender equality in the Muslim world.
The United States should help create a “pathway to get the Muslim world to reject extremism on its own,” he added.
And as Romney sought to appeal to swing-state moderates, he ended up agreeing with many of Obama’s policies during the debate — even committing for the first time to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and saying Obama’s troop surge worked. He endorsed Obama’s policy of killing suspected terrorists with drones and said that, like Obama, sanctions and diplomacy would be his priority to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
After assailing Obama’s handling of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, at the last debate, Romney seemed to pull his punches on the issue Monday night, while complaining that Obama was attacking him too much.
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Romney countered early on.
Romney did find some areas to contrast himself with the Obama policy agenda of the past four years. He repeated his charge that Obama had gone on an “apology tour” to start his presidency and hadn’t projected strength in the Middle East or with countries around the world — an attack Obama called the biggest “whopper” of the campaign.
Romney also accused the administration of failing to provide American leadership in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions that unseated a series of longtime autocrats, allowing Islamist extremists to make gains and resulting in “a pretty dramatic reversal of the hopes we had for that region.”
Their foreign policy differences were perhaps clearest on Syria, where the administration has struggled to find a way to shape the increasingly sectarian civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a fragmented opposition. The conflict now threatens to swallow up the entire region, with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon unsettled by the violence on their borders. Romney noted that despite White House pronouncements that it is working to help organize the opposition, intelligence shows that hasn’t happened.
“They haven’t formed a unity group, a council of some kind. That needs to happen,” Romney said. He also said he supported arming opposition forces — something Obama has refused to do.
But Romney said he opposed setting up a no-fly zone or other initiatives that would require military assets — which some outspoken GOP Senators have sought for months. “I do not want to see a military involvement on the part of our troops. This isn’t going to be necessary,” Romney said.
Obama has resisted military action and lethal aid.
“What we can’t do is to simply suggest that, as Gov. Romney at times has suggested, that giving heavy weapons, for example, to the Syrian opposition is a simple proposition that would lead us to be safer over the long term,” Obama said.
On Iran, Romney emphasized diplomacy but reinforced a distinction between himself and Obama on where to draw a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear program.
Romney said “a nuclear-capable Iran is a threat to America.” Obama has consistently reiterated that his administration will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but Iran could be nuclear capable without actually going so far as building a functioning missile to launch a nuclear bomb.
Obama also ripped Romney for saying in 2008 that the country shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden.
“If we had asked Pakistan permission, we would not have gotten him,” Obama said. “And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.”
Obama said his decisions are not always popular and aren’t poll-tested. “Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did,” he said, seemingly throwing Joseph Biden under the bus. “But what the American people understand is that I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe and to move our interests forward, and I make those decisions.”
But repeatedly, both candidates brought the debate back to domestic policy, with a particularly sharp exchange toward the end over the auto industry bailout — a major Obama initiative that he has touted repeatedly, especially in the key swing state of Ohio.
Romney, who had penned an op-ed urging bankruptcy for Detroit, contended that he wanted to help the auto industry.
“I’m a son of Detroit. … The idea that has been suggested that I would liquidate the industry … that’s the height of silliness.”
Obama dismissed Romney’s answer. “Governor, the people in Detroit don’t forget.”
At times the debate flowed into education policy — with a mention of teachers unions by Romney — and the deficit, with Obama attacking Romney for proposing $7 trillion in new tax cuts and defense spending without saying how he will pay for it.
“The math simply doesn’t work,” Obama said.
Romney also repeated his vow to declare China a currency manipulator on day one, even if that results in a trade war. “There’s one going on right now, and they’re winning,” Romney said. “We can’t just surrender.”
Obama said his administration has aggressively gone after China when it has broken trade rules and noted Romney in one case said he had gone too far.
“Gov. Romney criticized me for being too tough,” Obama said, but the workers whose jobs were saved “don’t feel that way. … They feel as if they finally had an administration that took this issue seriously.”