Wonkbook: The last presidential debate of 2012

October 22, 2012

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Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Obama +0.2%; 7-day change: Obama +1.7%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.3%; 7-day change: -0.4%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 61.5%; 7-day change: +0.3%.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 0. That's how many presidential debates there will be on the 2012 election after tonight. It's also how many conventions there will be, and how many vice presidential nominations there will be. The fact is that after tonight, there are no obvious moments where one campaign or the other can change the underlying synamics of the race. World events can still matter, but it's out of the two campaigns' hands. 

That raises the stakes. If one candidate or the other underperforms tonight, there's no opportunity to make it back in the next debate. If one team or the other feels they haven't quite broken through in the electoral college, they know this is likely their last chance. After tonight's debate, there will be 15 days left in the election, but none of them will be worth as much as today -- and both candidates know it.

Top story: Prepping for the final presidential debate

Both candidates go into the final debate on foreign policy with vulnerabilities. "It sounded weeks ago like a mismatch. The final presidential debate would focus on foreign policy — a sitting president who’d overseen the death of Osama bin Laden pitted against a one-term governor, so new to diplomatic thinking that he’d managed to offend a good chunk of Britain during a brief trip this summer. Monday night’s debate doesn’t look like a mismatch anymore...Before the two men first debated on Oct. 3, Obama held a 15-point lead over Romney on the question of who is more capable of managing foreign affairs. After Obama’s listless performance, a Pew Research Center poll found that the gap had narrowed to a slender four points...In this debate, Obama could face the opposite of the situation many envisioned weeks before. Instead of lending him credibility, his commander-in-chief role could make him more vulnerable, opening Obama to questions about a range of unresolved crises." Anne Gearan and David A. Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

@mattyglesias: Hoping the foreign policy debate consists of geography bee questions -- what's the northernmost EU capital? What's Peru's top export?

The New York Times' David Sanger explains: A primer on major foreign policy issues: Libya, Iran, cyberspace, Afghanistan, and China.

@TheStalwart: What's the difference between Obama and Romney on foreign policy?

You too can prep like a presidential candidate: Practice question from Foreign Policy magazine's team and even more questions here and here from Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg.

With the final debate tonight, we're into 2012's final stretch. "There’s not much that the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree upon these days, except for this: The 2012 presidential election remains to be won or lost in the next 16 days because neither side has been able to close the deal with voters...[A]s the presidential race heads into this final stretch, it is ending up pretty much where it started -- exceedingly tight." Karen Tumulty in The Washington Post.

Checking the pulse of the race. "The FiveThirtyEight forecast is unchanged for Saturday, with President Obama maintaining a 67.9 percent chance of winning the Electoral College...Although many of the surveys that are influencing the forecast preceded the debate, meaning that it will take another day or two before we can close the book on its effects, at the very least it seems clear that Mr. Obama will not see anything like the sharp break toward Mr. Romney that followed the first debate in Denver...This election is close and is likely to end up that way. There’s about a 50-50 chance that the election will end up within 2.5 percentage points, according to the forecast, against only a 15 percent chance that either candidate will win by five points or more." Nate Silver in The New York Times.

@blakehounshell: Reality check: Undecided voters don't really care about foreign policy.

Such a close race provides the circumstances under which foreign policy can be pivotal. "If, at the start of the general election campaign, you told a seasoned political strategist in either party that the fate of the presidential race could well hinge on the foreign-policy-focused third debate, the reaction would have ranged from an eye roll to laughter. And yet, here we are. President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney head to Boca Raton, Fla., for their final debate Monday night with national polls suggesting that the race is tied and with the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, dominating the headlines." Chris Cillizza inThe Washington Post.

@TheStalwart: Since nobody (real) cares about foreign policy, is there any chance they can be convinced to have another domestic policy debate?

On the eve of the foreign-policy debate, breaking news from Iran. "The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran. Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating...It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time. It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election." Helene Cooper and Mark Landler in The New York Times.

@DouthatNYT: On the evidence of [his] performance [at the second debate], Mitt Romney should answer every question in the foreign policy debate by talking about China.

John Kerry, Obama's debate partner and also candidate for Secretary of State. "To prepare for his debates, the president tapped a Senate veteran who knew the other party’s nominee well and could play the part with precision. By the end of their sessions, the president was seriously thinking about his debate practice partner for secretary of state...The story has faint echoes this weekend as President Obama and Senator John Kerry square off in debate practices at Camp David before the president’s final showdown with Mitt Romney on Monday...Mrs. Clinton, of course, is now the secretary of state. Mr. Kerry’s main rival to succeed her is Susan E. Rice, like Ms. Albright the ambassador to the United Nations. Whether Mrs. Clinton is weighing in again is unknown." Peter Baker in The New York Times.

@bdomenech: Again, Romney is at his weakest on foreign policy. Just not strong, not ready. Which is why Obama's strongest debate will be last one.

TRAUB: What the candidates should say. "In recent weeks, however, the foreign-policy debate between the two candidates has narrowed down to competing banalities. This tells us something about both men: Obama has very few achievements that he thinks he can safely brag about, while Romney has so few real convictions on the subject, and is so desperately attuned to public opinion, that he's prepared to latch on to anything, and to stand just about anywhere, in order to undermine his rival. It's hard to remember now, but before the economy cratered in the summer and fall of 2008, Obama ran a campaign focused on fundamentally reorienting America's posture in the world...[A]s he said throughout the 2008 campaign, America would double foreign aid, ban torture, close Guantánamo, and speak a new language of mutual respect for mutual interests. Obama had perhaps the most ambitious foreign-policy agenda of any candidate since John F. Kennedy: reverse nuclear proliferation, stem climate change, repair fragile states, and restore America's standing in the world." James Traub in Foreign Policy.

@matthewschmitz: Romney's foreign policy mendacity is a time bomb.

SHANE: The opiate of American exceptionalism. "Imagine a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers...How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary. Candidates and presidents generally oblige them, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney included. It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems -- but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence...Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously. In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process." Scott Shane inThe New York Times.

@mattyglesias: Foreign policy debate is going to be a huge snoozefest -- Libya! Osama! Libya! Osama!

@resnikoff: Conventional wisdom of all stripes is often cruel, but I'm always blown away by the cruelty of many armchair foreign policy advisers.

Top op-eds

BORDO: Why this U.S. recovery is weaker. "There is a vigorous debate over whether the U.S. economy’s recovery from the recent deep recession and financial crisis is weaker than similar events in economic history. In work with Joseph Haubrich, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, I have argued that this recovery is unusually weak compared with previous episodes. The Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff say the pace of the current recovery is consistent with the aftermaths of serious U.S. financial crises of the past. This is more than simply an academic debate. If, as Haubrich and I contend, this recovery is unusually slow, then the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration must bear some of the responsibility...What we found was that Friedman’s theory held up and that historically the U.S. economy has bounced back faster from deep recessions accompanied by financial crises than from those without financial crises. In addition, we found that the weakness of the current recovery is a major departure from the historical pattern of recessions with financial crises." Michael Bordo in Bloomberg.

@DLeonhardt: As I've written, Team Obama misread financial-crisis history. Reinhart and Rogoff suggest Romney is misreading it more

KRUGMAN: The secret of our non-success. "The U.S. economy finally seems to be recovering in earnest, with housing on the rebound and job creation outpacing growth in the working-age population. But the news is good, not great -- it will still take years to restore full employment -- and it has been a very long time coming. Why has the slump been so protracted? The answer -- backed by overwhelming evidence -- is that this is what normally happens after a severe financial crisis...Why is recovery from a financial crisis slow? Financial crises are preceded by credit bubbles; when those bubbles burst, many families and/or companies are left with high levels of debt, which force them to slash their spending. This slashed spending, in turn, depresses the economy as a whole. And the usual response to recession, cutting interest rates to encourage spending, isn’t adequate. Many families simply can’t spend more, and interest rates can be cut only so far -- namely, to zero but not below." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

@justinwolfers: Reinhart-Rogoff: Compared w/ "other countries that suffered systemic financial crises in 2007-08, the US performance is better than average"

FRIEDMAN: Obama's best-kept secrets. "One thing that has struck me about the debates so far is how little President Obama has conveyed about what I think are his two most innovative domestic programs...His Race to the Top program in education has already set off a nationwide wave of school reform, and his Race to the Top in vehicles -- raising the mileage standards for American-made car and truck fleets from 27.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 m.p.g. between now and 2025 -- is already spurring a wave of innovation in auto materials, engines and software. Obama mentioned both briefly in the last debate, but I want to talk about them more, because I think they are the future of progressive politics in this age of austerity: government using its limited funds and steadily rising performance standards to stimulate states and businesses to innovate better economic, educational and environmental practices." Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times.

PEARLSTEIN: Why the economy may be better than you think. "This may come as something of a surprise to regular readers of this column, but I’m feeling rather optimistic these days about the U.S. economy...Ours remains a weak recovery that looks good largely because it has persisted in the face of political dysfunction, rising oil prices, a looming fiscal contraction and global headwinds. In the short term, the possibility of a quarter or two of near-zero growth cannot be ruled out...What I tend to focus on, however, are the longer-term structural adjustments and rebalancing in our post-bubble economy that need to occur before a robust and sustainable recovery can begin. And from that perspective, the signs are positive." Steven Pearlstein in The Washington Post.

DOUTHAT: Sympathy for the undecided. "[P]olitical insiders tend to discuss undecideds with a mix of exasperation, condescension and contempt. Especially at this point in the presidential season, after months of debates and ads and op-eds have made the case that 'the choice is clear' in 'the most important election of our lifetimes,' it can be hard to imagine how anyone with an ounce of savvy can still be on the fence...[M]any undecided voters do tend to be ill-informed bandwagon jumpers with little coherence or consistency to their worldview...As we enter this campaign’s last two weeks, though, it’s worth putting in a sympathetic word for a rarer species: the highly informed, highly engaged, yet still conflicted voter. Whatever partisans on both sides may insist, there are good reasons that a high-information voter with views somewhere near the American median might still regard this November’s decision as a harder-than-average call." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

COHAN: How to crash an economy and escape the scene. "Is it time to put the Great Recession behind us? Not in terms of the economy -- which remains bogged down with high employment, low growth and other aftershocks -- but rather when it comes to demanding a rigorous effort to hold Wall Street bankers, traders and executives accountable for their role in causing the financial crisis. Should we just chalk it up to such simplified explanations as “animal spirits ran amok” and “these things happen occasionally”? Or should we continue to expend scarce political and law-enforcement resources trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and why, with a goal of holding the right people legally and financially accountable?...At the moment, the message we are broadcasting far and wide is: There will be no justice; there will be no accountability; let’s return to the status quo as quickly as possible." William D. Cohan in Bloomberg.

Top long reads

How we misread the numbers that dominate our politics. "In politics and beyond, we often use numbers to validate our intuitions and to measure the vagaries of life, yet we know that these numbers are often imprecise. And perhaps more than any prior election, this year’s race has shown how easily numbers can be abused, exploited or misconstrued...It is not surprising that numbers are so central to this year’s political campaign, since the nation’s chief challenges are economic. Numbers offer candidates a way to provide evidence of their achievements or concrete plans for the future. They convey facts, not spin." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Infographics interlude: Voter laws across America.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: Fannie and Freddie, remember them?; bioterrorism drug bonds; why disability insurance is a mess; the bust in natural gas; and apparently the US isn't patriotic enough.

Economy

Why is unemployment not falling in the Northeast. "The U.S. economy has an unexpected weak spot. It’s not Ohio or Michigan or any of the usual suspects. It’s the Northeast...Unemployment in the Northeast United States appears to have been getting significantly worse over the past year. (That includes everything from Pennsylvania and New Jersey up to Maine.) The Northeast unemployment rate has risen from 7.9 percent in April to 8.5 percent this past September...Indeed, as Evan Soltas observed at Bloomberg, the recent deterioration of the Northeast -- a region that was holding up relatively well in 2010 and 2011 -- helps explain why the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen so slowly this year." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Obama (finally) talks housing policy. "President Obama brought housing to the forefront during his weekly address Saturday, again calling on Congress to act on mortage relief. Obama noted a recent decline in foreclosure notices, but said lawmakers still need to pass a plan he released in February that would allow millions of homeowners to refinance their mortgages." Megan R. Wilson in The Hill.

A plan to alter Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Conventional wisdom in Washington says the mortgage giants, which effectively were nationalized in 2008 to keep credit flowing, should be wound down. But neither the White House nor Congress has proposed a serious plan for what should take their place or how to recoup the $142 billion taxpayers have put into the two companies. In the meantime, talent has streamed out of both firms, and long-term systems upgrades have been deferred. What remains is an indefinite, government-run conservatorship of two companies with $5 trillion in liabilities." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Artistic interlude: Wood sculptures. Complex, low-frequency movement. Go..

Health Care

A new lead in the hunt for an AIDS vaccine. "A team of researchers has identified one way the human body can develop powerful antibodies to protect it against the AIDS virus, offering a new lead in the quest for a vaccine. The findings, the latest in a series of advances in AIDS research in the past few years, are significant because scientists were able to establish a link between a change in the virus after infection and the formulation of the antibodies that fight it...In a study published online in the journal Nature Medicine Sunday, researchers from the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa discovered a key change in the outer coating of the HIV virus that had enabled two HIV-infected women to develop broadly neutralizing antibodies." Betsy McKay in The Wall Street Journal.

Bioterrorism drug bonds? "A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office has rejected an industry proposal to use government bonds to fund the development of drugs countering bioterrorism threats. Small biotechnology companies asked the federal government last year to switch to bond financing from contracts, which are seen in the industry as costly and a sometimes unreliable revenue source when used for drug development...Financing is a big issue for companies developing vaccines and treatments designed to prevent or treat illnesses caused by biological terrorism attacks, said retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, founding director of the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington." Kathleen Miller in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

The trap of disability insurance. "8.7 million disabled Americans who rely on cash assistance from the government through a program called Supplemental Security Income. The program was created in 1974 to help blind, aged and disabled people meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. By 2035, the federal government expects to spend $60.9 billion in payments to 9.9 million people. Discussion of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs has been at the forefront of election-year debate. But there has been no discussion of S.S.I. The fact is that expenditures for the S.S.I. program are rising while the economic status of disabled people is on the decline. The very program that is supposed to be their safety net is actually the source of the problem, experts say. S.S.I. traps many disabled people by limiting their income to levels just above the poverty line, and taking away their cash benefits if they achieve any level of security." Julie Turkewitz and Juliet Linderman in The New York Times.

The fiscal cliff as a deficit-solving plan. "If all you wanted to do was to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible, here’s one very simple way to get it done: Go off the fiscal cliff. Do so would result in about $720 billion in total austerity in 2013, and it would bring down the deficit that year in some of major ways...So when businesses and politicians fret about the economic fallout from the fiscal cliff, they’re reacting to the consequences of dramatic deficit-reduction in the short-term. It would save the government hundreds of billions of dollars next year, but would also take away the equivalent 4.6 percent of GDP through tax hikes and spending cuts." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

Pro-America interlude: The U.S. ranks 3rd in liking the United States.

Energy

Clifford Krauss and Eric Lipton explain how the boom in natural gas is turning into a bust for producers: "For most of the country, the result has been cheaper energy. The nation is awash in so much natural gas that electric utilities, which burn the fuel in many generating plants, have curbed rate increases and switched more capacity to gas from coal, a dirtier fossil fuel...But while the gas rush has benefited most Americans, it’s been a money loser so far for many of the gas exploration companies and their tens of thousands of investors. The drillers punched so many holes and extracted so much gas through hydraulic fracturing that they have driven the price of natural gas to near-record lows. And because of the intricate financial deals and leasing arrangements that many of them struck during the boom, they were unable to pull their foot off the accelerator fast enough to avoid a crash in the price of natural gas, which is down more than 60 percent since the summer of 2008."

Obama's record on air pollution. "Obama has used his executive powers -- including his authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act -- to press the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history. He has imposed the first carbon-dioxide limits on new power plants, tightened fuel-efficiency rules as part of the auto bailout and steered billions of federal dollars to clean-energy projects. He also has proposed slashing mercury emissions from utilities by 91 percent by 2016...The strategy was bolstered by some outside factors. Its effort to limit carbon emissions was benefited by the natural-gas boom; many utilities are switching from coal to natural gas, which is more economical and emits much less carbon. The automobile bailout gave Obama the leverage to impose tougher fuel-efficiency standards, and the Environmental Protection Agency faced several lawsuits pending from the Bush administration that needed to be resolved." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

The push for real-time air quality data begins. "The small nonprofit Safecast is applying lessons learned from measuring radiation post-Fukushima to the pervasive and growing problem of urban air quality. Buoyed by a $400,000 prize from the Knight Foundation, the group is designing low-cost environmental sensors that measure air quality every minute and post the data publicly. The sensor system, which uses off-the-shelf components, will make its debut in Los Angeles...Working with a constellation of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and hackers around the world, Mr. Bonner set out to collect the data sought by his friends and make it easily accessible, but the team quickly hit a wall: the data they wanted did not exist...Safecast aims to expand this network by orders of magnitude, providing minute-by-minute data on a much finer scale." Dylan Walsh in The New York Times.

Investors want cleaner oil sands. "A group of 49 investors with more than $2tn under management is launching an initiative on Monday to put pressure on companies operating in the Canadian oil sands to improve their environmental performance.The investors accept that the production from the oil sands of Alberta is going to rise, but want companies such as BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total that are active there to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and water use. They argue that environmental impacts could create a significant threat to future earnings, for example if production has to be curbed as a result of water shortages, or regulations on greenhouse gases make the oil sands uncompetitive." Ed Crooks in The Financial Times.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Suzy Khimm · October 21, 2012