The Second Presidential Debate 2012: Obama vs Romney II

On October 16, 2012 Mitt Romney and Barack Obama engaged in a second debate that was highly anticipated. Public opinion had been that the President had lost the first debate. However, in the Vice Presidential debate his Vice President and running mate Joe Biden buoyed the President’s supporters with a strong and feisty performance and the President’s supporters hoped to see the same from him.

My observation from the beginning of the debate was that the President was much more engaged and energetic. It was clear that the President understood the stakes of the debate and was ready to elevate his game. Mitt Romney remained engaged and it was clear that he felt that his original debate strategy had been successful and he stuck with it. This made for an exciting debate and I believe it revealed some interesting things about both candidates.

Early in the debate Mitt Romney handled questions about what he would do to create jobs by trying to show that he was empathetic with the middle class and would do everything he could to make it easier to afford college, by supporting federal loan programs and Pell grants. On energy Mitt Romney continued his insistence that America was not working fast enough toward energy independence. He continued to champion small businesses as job creators and he reiterated his critique of President Obama’s stewardship of the American economic system.

For his part President Obama seemed to be much more comfortable in the town hall format. He engaged the questions by giving clear plans on what he would do and then pivoted toward a critique of Governor Romney’s positions. On jobs the President attempted to defend his record. He emphasized that he was the one who promoted the so-called auto bailout which saved jobs in the auto industry. He asserted that Mitt Romney would have let the industry fail. He continued with his strong support of initiatives to improve education. He emphasized that he is for energy independence but he supports an “all of the above plan” which includes research into wind and solar energy, as well as traditional fossil fuels. He defended against Romney’s assertion that he was not drilling in America enough by pointing out that more drilling had taken place during his campaign in his administration than in the previous one. He also stated that he supported higher fuel efficiency standards. He also took issue with the idea that he was weak in trade negotiations with China, and connected with a particularly nasty comment that as someone who was a “pioneer in outsourcing”, Mitt Romney was the last person who would be tough on China.

In short, Mitt Romney stuck with his tried and true plan of criticizing the President’s record, while the President changed his strategy from the first debate by attacking Governor Romney whenever he felt that he was being dishonest, but also giving full throated support of his own record as something to be proud of.

So who won?

I left my summary sparse so that I could include some additional points before I give my opinion on who won the debate. I feel that Mitt Romney has proven over the past two debates that he is a capable debater who has a grasp on the policy issues that are of concern in the campaign. In parallel I think Barack Obama has shown he is on the pulse of the issues as a President and Commander in Chief should be. Many felt the President lost the first debate, but I felt that the President won it simply because Mitt Romney did not honestly represent his campaign positions. In this debate, President Obama adjusted to this tactic by challenging whatever positions Romney took that he felt were not honest. As such, the debate (and by extension the campaign) devolved into a contest about which candidate is more believable. If a voter thinks Obama is more believable they will probably think he won. If a voter thinks Romney is more believable, they will probably think he won. This was vividly illustrated by a portion of the debate that was little more than each candidate basically telling the other they were not telling the truth.

However, the fact of the matter is the reason for campaigns is so that a candidate can establish a position. The reason for debates is so that the candidates get a chance to defend the positions they have campaigned on. The entire dynamic changes when one candidate gets tries to use a debate to completely recalibrate his positions as Governor Romney has done. It is a risky strategy because if he is shown to be dishonest then the strategy fails.

In my opinion this debate had three points. The first point was the beginning of the debate. As I said before the President came out very energetic and seemed ready to not only engage the audience, but also his opponent. For his part Mitt Romney came out with the same strategy and energy that he had in the first debate. As a result, sparks flew right away with the debate devolving into little more than an understated yelling match at one point. What Mitt Romney has proven adept at is critiquing the President’s record. He eloquently described how the unemployment rate is higher than we would like. He also commented on the lack of reform of medicare. He added that the deficit is not lower. He stated that there are more people in poverty, and he emphasized slow economic growth. Obviously what he did not point out the context in which those things exist and it was the President’s job to illustrate the context and defend his record. In the beginning the President held his own defending his record and counterattacking Mitt Romney for not being honest about the policies he has supported in the past.

The second point of the debate was characterized by a serious question by a young lady on income inequality among genders. I felt that Mitt Romney was kind of awkward on this question and he never actually answered it. He talked about an initiative he undertook to hire women in his administration when he was governor of Massachusetts. He also pivoted to how he feels job creation in general will create a (trickle down?) effect that will get more women hired. On the other hand, I felt that the President handled this question masterfully, by not only addressing the issue of income inequality. In essence, he said that women need to partner with him by advocating their position so that he can work with it in government. But then he went beyond that, linking Planned Parenthood and its initiatives to family economic issues. He pointed out that if Planned Parenthood was canceled or defunded that it would affect women’s “pocketbooks” and ultimately affect the financial wellbeing of families and by extension the nation as a whole since women are increasingly the breadwinners in households. For a policy wonk such as myself this type of answer reflected a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of an issue like gender income inequality. I felt the President’s broadening of the topic was excellent and I felt that he soundly defeated Romney on this issue.

The final point of the debate was what I would refer to as the “endgame.” It began on a question about the terrorist attack in Libya in which resulted in the deaths of American diplomats. President Obama started this off by assuming responsibility for any security failures and vowing to find the perpetrators. He also chastised Mitt Romney for playing politics with the issue. Mitt Romney began his response by showing empathy for the losses that occurred (which he should have done when the event happened) and countered by accusing the President of being misleading about the nature of the terrorist attack. The President responded with a historic statement in which he reaffirmed that he alone was responsible for what happened because he was President and said that he was offended that Mitt Romney would insinuate that anyone associated with him would lie or mislead on the issue of what happened. At this point I already had Barack Obama ahead in the debate but this was the point that I think he really began to separate himself. He followed this up with an excellent response on the issue of jobs, stating unequivocally that some jobs are not coming back, but he stated he is not chasing those jobs because they are low skill and low wage jobs and he is interested in high skill high wage jobs, which can be produced in part by investment in education, science and research.

The closing statement was the President’s ace in the hole. Here he pointedly focused on Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment asking people to think about who the majority of these people are. Obama clarified that the majority of these people are struggling students, struggling but hard working families, veterans, soldiers serving overseas, and senior citizens who have already paid into the system.

I think President Obama held his own in the beginning of the debate and dominated the last two parts of the debate and for that reason he won this debate decisively.