Round 2: Romney's momentum continuing unabated?
To many, last night's debate may have appeared to be a tie, since both men had a solid night. But a tie was not enough for Obama
In last night's presidential debate, held at Hofstra University, Governor Romney was once again on top form and his performance appeared to justify the many hours that he has dedicated to preparing for these events. In this, the second of three debates, Romney appeared relaxed, presidential and on top of his game.
By contrast, his opponent, Barack Obama appeared somehow less impressive. That could be something to do with expectations. He is, after all, the incumbent so he should be expected to be able to handle such a debate. Yet if these debates have demonstrated anything so far, it is that Obama is not dominating the events to the degree that one could and should expect from a sitting president.
Obama's answers appeared to be impersonal and somewhat generic, as he struggled to connect with the crowd and stumbled over names. His answers were technically sound and doubtless remembered perfectly well from his study notes, but he was lacking in empathy.
His first answer to a question from a college student was delivered as a 5 point plan that talked about a general domestic recovery initiative, delivered in a rather professorial manner. There was no attempt to empathise or connect; he was unable to address the rationale for why gas prices stand at almost $4 a gallon or suggest if this could be reduced at any point in the future. Indeed, many of his answers simply failed to address the specifics of the questions.
Obama was singularly unable, therefore, to channel Bill Clinton's empathy when addressing the audience. At one point he was asked by an audience memeber, who had voted for Obama in 2008, why he should vote for him now? Where Clinton would have thanked him for his vote and empathised with the individual, Obama appeared to lecture the audience and insist that he has been right all along.
Whilst neither side was necessarily specific enough in their answers, last night's debate was more about style and conveying a sense of empathy. Did the candidate get that Americans were suffering and could he convey both concern and a plan to help?
Mitt Romney gave a strong and very credible performance and addressed the crowd, the moderator, and the president with his answers. He appeared far more capable of connecting with his audience. Does this matter? Does America need a communicator or a technocrat? History suggests that the former tends to succeed, with both Reagan and Clinton being prime examples.
Obama was certainly more robust than last time in Denver, but Romney was also on his game and he again appeared to dominate the floor and managed to ensure that the moderator could not move the debate on without getting his rebuttals in. He appeared confident and capable of connecting with the audience, which was not necessarily expected heading into the debate.
Both sides sought to get some zingers into the dialogue: Romney made a nice point by suggesting that Obama will put the country on the road to Greece, whilst Obama seemed to finally remember Mitt Romney's remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who won't be voting for him. His remarks on this, coming towards the end of the debate, could have a lasting impact.
Neither candidate appeared to have a bad night, so this was a good opportunity for American voters to judge the two men. However, if this was as good as Obama can be, it may not be good enough.
Romney has now exceeded expectations on two successive debates and proven himself to be a very different candidate to John McCain in 2008. In last night's debate he was a great mix of smooth and salty as he played to the audience and took the fight directly to the president on occasion.
The debate took an interesting turn when it moved to foreign policy. When asked to differentiate himself from George W. Bush, Romney's answer focused not on military or diplomatic initiatives, but on trade, energy, and business issues. Even Obama's answer fell into the same pattern, when an opportunity existed to address the status of the United States on the world stage.
Obama was asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya. His answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question but asserted that he was responsible, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, "she works for me, I'm the president and I'm always responsible."
By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her.
More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House, presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be cowering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief
Obama channeled righteous indignation at the suggestion that he was fundraising in the immediate aftermath of the attack in Libya, and appeared visibly angry at the suggestion. Anger, however, is a very problematic emotion to channel effectively on television and in such an intimate setting it appeared excessive.
He also slipped in the process, claiming that he had referred to the attack in Benghazi as “an act of terrorism” within 24 hours, when of course, this was much more ambiguous at the time.
Once again, the moderator was totally lacking, with both men totally dominating the event and failing to be brought in on time, talking over one another, and with the moderator failing to assert herself. Was this timidity on her behalf, or disdain on theirs? Hard to tell...
Ultimately, judging the outcome of the debate is difficult. To many, this may have appeared to be a tie, since both men had a good night. However, a tie was not enough for Obama, who was seen to have lost the first debate. In holding his own last night, Mitt Romney's momentum appears to continue unabated.
Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys
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