The 2nd presidential debate last night was nothing if not exciting and tension filled. The Obama we knew from 2008 was back with fervor while Romney fought back hard to maintain his momentum and success from the first debate. There were several moments of clear disagreement or misunderstanding of the facts between the two candidates. Romney pressed the president on oil and gas permitting, the actual events surrounding the attack in Benghazi, budget deficits and immigration. The President, while much improved this time around, was unable to fully push back. So to play a bit of armchair debating and employ a healthy dose of 20/20 hindsight let’s revisit a few of these issues from last night.
Oil & Gas
Romney repeated a number of times, in an attempt to call out the President on his energy policies saying he reduced oil production by slashing permitting in half. He hammered Obama at one point standing virtually toe-to-toe with him, demanding, “How many permits? What’s the number.” It was obvious Obama didn’t know the exact number but he did know permitting was not cut in half.
Obama may not have known but I do and here is where the armchair debating comes into play. With an internet connected keyboard in front of me let’s see who actually knew what. First, federal land permitting has dropped off but not quite by half. They’ve been reduced by about 37%, so a bit less than the half Romney characterized. That reduction had more to do with the policy and permit approval impacts from the Gulf oil spill. However, even with this reduction in permits, Obama was correct when he said production on federal lands is higher than it was under the previous administration. From 2009 to 2011 production averaged 675,000 barrels annually, an increase over the annual production of 609,000 under Bush. It’s also well worth noting that overall production on federal lands has been decreasing annually since 2002 which includes a drop-off of offshore drilling.
The attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi was a particularly heated topic of discussion last night with Romney insisting Obama was hiding behind the internet video and Obama taking stern offense to his opponents characterization of his handling of the tragedy. This is an example of what I referred to in my previous post as criticism in isolation. As with the criticism of the administration’s job creation record, the Benghazi critics have not taken into account the broader situation. Romney’s overall critique is that Obama and his team attempted to blame the video inspired protesters for the attacks rather than a terrorist cell which deliberately planned the attacks to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary.
So what are the facts? Was the attack on the embassy an isolated terrorist attack? Was the video to blame and was it valid to attribute the incident to its release?
The answers are convoluted as many incidents such as these often are. First, the internet video was indeed a catalyst for widespread protests across the Middle East and Asia. This is something the Republican presidential candidate and members of Congress investigating the attack are forgetting. The media is also acting irresponsibly as they have negated to acknowledge this fact as they continue their reports of the aftermath. If we draw upon our short-term memories a bit we can recall that the protests began in Egypt where concern about them was such that the embassy there felt it necessary to tweet a denouncement of the video which they understood, correctly, was the primary reason for the rapidly gathering protesters.
Second, was the attack perpetrated by an actual terrorist cell? Based on reports that have come to light since, yes there was an terrorist cell in the area of Benghazi, Libya. There was documented concern about their intent to mark the 9/11 anniversary with an attack, the nature of which was not clear beforehand. In addition, the ambassador was wary enough of the situation that he did request increased security which was apparently denied by the State Department. While clarity is still elusive, it is quite possible the terrorist were seeking an opportunity to launch an attack and the spreading protests represented that chance to act under cover of a mass of angry people. Could the terrorists have fostered the protest itself, in that one town so they could advance close enough to the embassy to obscure their real intent? Quite possibly. Either way, the protests that were initially blamed for the attacks were not isolated to Benghazi but were widespread across the entire region brought about by the internet video and citing it as a catalyst for the attack was not out of the line nor beyond reason.
UPDATE: New CIA reports which appear in this October 20th article fully support the above assessment that the embassy attack was opportunistic.
While much has been made of Obama’s ballooning deficits there is much more involved than the actions just one man or one Congress under one party control. If we take a quick trip back in time to 2001 the CBO predicted an accumulated budgetary surplus of $5.6 trillion by 2011. Of course this did not happen and the country saw deficits increase to $6.1 trillion over that same decade. So what happened? Unfortunately, the CBO was unable to predict the Great Recession which resulted in massive tax revenue decreases due to millions of Americans losing jobs. Tax cuts supported and instituted by both President Obama and Bush accounted for $2.8 trillion, $1.2 trillion of which is attributed to the 2001 Bush tax cuts alone. Other culprits were due to increases in defense spending, two wars and many hardship outlays, such as food stamps and unemployment payments, resulting from the recession. There were also expenses for the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, TARP and the Stimulus Bill. So who is actually to blame? We all want to know. Well according to a Washington Post fact check between 2009 to 2011 the major factor was the recession and its lingering impacts. In 2009, in addition to the recession, it was a even match between Obama and Bush’s polices as they accounted for 27% of the deficit each. By 2010 Obama’s influence increased to 35% and Bush’s dropped to 14%. In 2011 that influence from the previous administration fell off to10% while Obama’s administration increased again to 44%.
So is Obama solely to blame for the massive deficits we have? No. Has he had a significant influence over it? Yes, but it is worth remembering when Bush took over the CBO estimated, based on economic conditions and policies of the time, the US would have a projected surplus of 5.6 trillion and that the recession has been the largest contributor to the deficit since 2009.
Mitt Romney hammered Obama on his promise to tackle immigration reform in his first term, a promise the President did not keep. Amidst constant badgering from his challenger, Obama did not provide a direct answer to why he did not take on immigration reform during his first 4 years.
This probably the simplest one to answer for Obama and it has its roots in priorities and politics. From his first footfall across the threshold of the White House the President has been embroiled with resurrecting the economy as Democrats pushed stimulative efforts, jobs bills, financial reform and health care reform through Congress. The economy, of course, was number one and much of what was done to reign in the recession was passed by the end of 2009. The job wasn’t done by then but the hole was plugged and there was a waiting period to assess the effects of the stimulus legislation. From there health care reform became the next priority. It was viewed as a fairly responsible move since health care was, and still is, a significant cause of personal debt for so many Americans. And it was because of this fact that reform was seen as interrelated with the economy.
Despite this perception of economic interrelatedness, many on the other side of the aisle did not agree and the President was criticized vehemently for not concentrating more on job creation. Given the level of criticism over his choice to pursue health care what does Romney think the reaction from the President’s critics would have been if he decided to chase immigration reform? For me, this was the reason Obama did not choose to push immigration legislation through during these first 4 years and it’s doubtful this issue would have been high on Romney’s list had he entered the White House during similar circumstances. It is also dubious to believe Romney would tackle it as soon as he claims given his other priorities to create 12 million new jobs, to eliminate Obamacare and to pursue his broad tax system reforms all during his first term.