Nation-building at home


This week’s final presidential debate was designed to focus on foreign affairs. But President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, often steered the conversation back to the domestic issues that will decide the election.

The candidates strained to disagree on how they would deal with hot spots such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The debate’s most talked-about exchange came when Mr. Obama responded to Mr. Romney’s point that the Navy is smaller than it was in 1917. Noting that warfare has changed, the President said the military also has fewer horses and bayonets.

Despite a lack of real drama on foreign affairs, the candidates continued to voice clear differences on domestic issues, including jobs and the economy, which rank far higher among the priorities of likely voters. Framing those issues during a foreign-policy debate was an expedient political strategy.

Still, it made sense. The nation’s economy, schools, infrastructure, and debt, as well as the health and well-being of its people, will largely determine America’s strength and credibility abroad.

President Obama acknowledged as much when he said it was time to do some nation-building at home. So did Mr. Romney, by repeatedly tying the sluggish economy and growing national debt to national security.

Using America’s domestic health and strength as indices, though, the country is in far more trouble than either nominee would acknowledge. Among economically advanced nations, the United States reports some of the highest rates of child poverty and infant deaths.

This country trails its peers in high school math and science scores, raising doubts about its ability to compete in a global marketplace. America also leads the world in per-capita energy use, and in obesity and incarceration rates.

Some states, including Michigan, spend more on prisons than on higher education. Small wonder, then, that social mobility in this country lags that in Canada and most of Europe.

America’s most visible domestic failure may be its inability to maintain its critical infrastructure, including a first-class transportation system. That’s a mistake that China, which is making enormous investments in high-speed trains and roads, seeks to avoid.

The United States lacks a comprehensive national transportation plan. Its roads continue to crumble, and its transit systems starve under a depleted federal highway trust fund.

The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not risen since 1993. Nor does Congress or the Obama Administration show any urgency in finding other ways to pay for transportation needs, as cars and trucks become more fuel-efficient.

If the President’s record has been disappointing, Mr. Romney’s rhetoric is downright disturbing. His domestic agenda appears to be little more than a series of risky tax cuts — many aimed at benefiting the nation’s wealthiest citizens — that simply don’t add up.

It is encouraging, however, that in a debate that revealed few major differences in foreign policy, President Obama and Mr. Romney both suggested that America’s influence abroad depends largely on its strength at home. Whoever wins the election must turn those words into reality, if America is to remain for the world that vaunted “city upon a hill.”