- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
In their effort to court undecided voters in industrial swing states like Ohio, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been going to great lengths to demonstrate their toughness on China, hurling attack ad after attack ad at one another.
Romney has pledged to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office and promised to balance the budget by asking whether each federal program is so important that it’s worth borrowing money from China to finance it. Obama, availing himself of the power that comes with already being in office, announced a World Trade Organization complaint against China during a campaign stop in Ohio. Cracking down on China’s unfair trade practices is a loaded issue — encompassing jobs, the economy, U.S. foreign policy, and American power — and it may very well come up during tonight’s presidential debate.
So who’s making the better case? A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted between Sept. 26-30, indicates that the advantage goes to Romney. When asked who would do a better job "dealing with the economic challenges we face from China," 45 percent of registered voters selected Romney while 37 percent selected Obama (the poll also shows Romney slashing Obama’s foreign-policy edge by more than half, from 47-32 in July to 46-40). The NBC/WSJ survey hasn’t asked the China question before, but a Bloomberg poll of likely voters, conducted between Sept. 21-24, showed Obama and Romney tied at 43 percent when it came to who would do the best job of "dealing with China on trade" (50 percent of respondents in that survey were skeptical of Romney’s pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator). If Romney has indeed opened up a lead on Obama on China, that would be a significant development.
Still, there are some caveats to these numbers. Democratic pollster Fred Yang pointed out on MSNBC today that Republicans in past elections have enjoyed even greater advantages on China. And while Romney has narrowed the gap with Obama in swing states such as Florida and Virginia, he’s still far behind the president in Ohio — a state where the Republican candidate’s message on China should have particular resonance (indeed, a recent Zogby poll commissioned, fittingly, by Death by China Productions found that likely voters in Ohio trust Romney more than Obama to crack down on unfair Chinese trade practices). If Romney is in fact winning the China argument, it’s not yet clear that the achievement will translate into electoral success.
Even so, Obama would probably like to have that eight-point lead on China. After all, all he got for his tough line on Beijing is a lousy (if legally shaky) lawsuit.