Tuesday night's feisty presidential debate covered largely familiar ground, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney traded jabs over hot-button issues such as immigration, tax plans, and foreign policy. The discourse became more pointed toward the end, however, when moderator Candy Crowley confronted both candidates about the outsourcing of tech manufacturing jobs.
"iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China," Crowley said, citing low labor costs as a primary driver. "How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?" Romney, taking the floor first, responded with the following:
"The answer is very straightforward. We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level. China's been cheating over the years. One, by holding down the value of their currency. Two, by stealing our intellectual property, our designs, our patents, our technology — there's even an Apple store in China that's a counterfeit Apple Store, selling counterfeit goods. They hack into our computers. We will have to have people play on a fair basis, that's number one. Number two, we have to make America the most attractive place for entrepreneurs, for people who want to expand their business. That's what brings jobs in.
Obama, in rebuttal, was surprisingly blunt, effectively dismissing the premise altogether:
"Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back," he said. "Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs. That's why we have to emphasize manufacturing. That's why we have to invest in advanced manufacturing. That's why we've got to make sure that we've got the best science and research in the world."
Turning the issue into a springboard, the president then made his case for greater government involvement, arguing that investments in research and science are critical to creating "the next Apple" here in the US. "If we're not training engineers to make sure that they are equipped here in this country, then companies won't come here," Obama explained. "Those investments are what's going to help to make sure that we continue to lead this world economy, not just next year, but 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now."
For Romney, the solution begins with China. For Obama, it begins at home.
Within the larger context of Tuesday's political opera, this exchange was nothing more than a cadenza — a brief and hurried flourish squeezed into the corner of a TV programming block that precluded either candidate from delving into great detail. But it did expose a telling divergence in philosophy. For Romney, the solution begins with China. For Obama, it begins at home.
Romney's argument certainly didn't offer much in the way of specifics. In fact, it didn't really answer the question. Rather than offer a diagnosis, the Republican challenger instead chose to focus on the symptoms — piracy and, curiously, cyberattacks — while making only a thin reference to making America "attractive for entrepreneurs." Implicit to his answer, however, was the belief that the US truly can bring tech manufacturing jobs back home, once it "levels the playing field."
It's certainly not outrageous to assume that an American tech firm would bring manufacturing back to the States; Google tried to do just that with the Nexus Q before ultimately aborting the project. In response, though, Obama painted Romney's approach as almost archaic. Echoing what Steve Jobs reportedly told him last February, Obama argued that it's too late to turn the economic tide, and called upon the US to look inward at its own industries and infrastructure, rather than point its finger at China. On Tuesday night, the president asked Americans to accept what he sees as a hard reality, and to invest in a drastically different future.