Attn Bob Schieffer: Three Serious Questions to Throw Obama and Romney Off Kilter

October 18, 2012

From Big Bird to malarkey to binders full of women, it’s been quite the presidential debate series (there was also that whole dramatic shift in the momentum of the race thing).On Monday, we’ll hear from President Obama and Governor Romney for 1.5 Bob Schieffer-moderated hours on foreign policy. The topics have already been announced, and while it’s possible some development-related questions could come up (mostly likely under the basket of America’s role in the world), the odds aren’t great. Regardless, here are three questions that I’d like to hear the candidates answer.Question:  President Obama, Governor Romney, you have both acknowledged that US foreign assistance to developing countries is a powerful tool for protecting US strategic interests. Foreign aid, however, is only about one percent of the US total budget. In a time of enormous deficits, the country is faced with questions about which programs to cut and which programs to save. How would aid programs fare in your presidential budget request?As my colleague Sarah Jane Staats notes, the two candidates’ views on foreign aid are relatively indistinguishable in objectives, as well as in methods. Both see it as critical instrument of US foreign policy and “emphasize economic growth and better use of trade policy and private sector investment” to increase our bang for the aid buck. But as another colleague, Charles Kenny, points out, at the current minimal levels of spending, even with more emphasis on trade and investment, US aid can’t possibly have the impact the candidates’ ascribe to it.Neither candidate, of course, will suggest increasing the budget for US foreign assistance but there are ways that the next administration can make more effective use of limited aid dollars. I want to know what programs each potential administration says are its priorities, where it will cut, and how it will make US assistance most effective.For some thoughtful possibilities, see Connie Veillette, then of CGD, and CAP’s John Norris’s Engagement Amid Austerity report about how to reorient the 150 budget.Question:  The effects of climate change are already hitting Americans and especially poor people in developing countries. Will your administration work to put in place policies that would limit US emissions, such as a carbon tax or resuscitating cap and trade? Meanwhile, developing countries are seeking help in adapting to the impacts of climate change caused by past emissions of greenhouse gasses from the US and other rich countries. How should the US help?Climate change is one issue area where President Obama and Governor Romney seem miles apart—rhetorically. And while certainly most environmentalists would prefer an Obama administration to a Romney one, the Obama administration of the past four years has not been the leader on an international or domestic agreement on carbon emissions that many in the US and abroad hoped for.What more would an Obama administration do on this front? Would a Romney administration pursue an international agreement? It seems unlikely (as does any pursuit of a domestic carbon tax or cap and trade—though several of Romney’s economic advisors advocate for carbon taxes to help reduce the deficit).Regardless, the next administration will need to consider how the US is willing to assist countries with adaptation financing and strategy. USAID’s Climate Change and Development Strategy is a start for helping countries adapt to climate change, but it’s far from comprehensive or thoroughly ingrained in how the agency functions. Developing countries are asking for assistance. CGD’s Nancy Birdsall and Michele de Nevers, as well as others, have looked at using vulnerability indices to allocate adaptation finance (though, where this financing will come from is a different story). I’m not optimistic for the prospects of a substantive agreement anytime soon but will be looking to see what, if anything, comes out of Doha next month to push smart adaptation financing along and have no doubt Michele will be tracking closely the efforts of the Green Climate Fund and US involvement in it.The best adaptation finance allocation, however, won’t mean much without a serious, multinational effort to reduce carbon emissions.Question:  President Obama, Governor Romney, both of you have spoken about the importance of more trade and investment as part of US development policy. Are you willing to open the US market to the world’s poorest countries as the EU and Canada have already done? If not, how, specifically, will trade policy be part of your development policy?Both candidates talk about the importance of more trade for developing countries. Effective action on increased trade with these countries by either potential administration, however, is likely to prove difficult when US workers protest against the potential loss of jobs.Despite the US Generalized System of Preferences and regional programs, such as AGOA, intended to give the world’s poorest countries preferential access to the US market, critical exclusions, such as in apparel and agricultural, remain. As CGD’s Kim Elliott has argued for years, US trade policy towards the poorest countries should not be separate from its development policy, especially when the negative US-related job effects of increased trade with those countries would be limited.Bonus Round:Both of you have spoken of the importance of US aid to the Middle East. Recently, some Members of Congress of both parties have suggested limiting aid to countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Libya until those countries take a more US-friendly approach. How would your administration leverage (or not leverage) aid to countries that appear to be tacking against the US?Drug resistance is on the rise worldwide, and has increasingly made headlines in the United States with the rise of the staph germ MRSA and the recent ‘superbug’ outbreak at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center that killed seven people. How would your administration safeguard America’s health security against transnational threats like drug resistance and emerging infectious disease?You have stated support for increased legal immigration to the US by highly skilled workers. Would your administration support increased legal immigration by low-skilled workers? If yes, with what specific policy proposals? If not, why?And if your debate watching could use some more excitement, check out US Global Leadership Coalition’s Debate Bingo!Thanks to Michele de Nevers for her thoughts on climate, Kim Elliott for her thoughts on trade, and Jenny Ottenhoff for the question on US health security.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.