This was the verbal joust we were looking for. With only three weeks left a second poor showing by Obama could have been crucial in the election race. Governor Romney had empathically won the first debate in this three debate series hauling himself back into contention. In the past Obama has been adept at letting his opponents damage their own campaigns. This race seemed similar as many had dismissed Romney’s chances altogether after a number of blunders. To some it had seemed over and obviously President Obama was listening – this nonchalance proved to his detriment.
In the first debate Romney was unrecognisable from his earlier incarnations. With his own party now secured Romney chose the first debate as his opportunity to take the middle ground, in doing so he decimated an ill-prepared and lethargic Obama. From polls after that debate Romney saw himself emerge ahead for the first time. One had a sense in the aftermath that governance would take a back seat as Obama’s Democratic machine focused all its attention on their man’s rebuttal. So last night’s second 90-minute debate held in New York was of paramount importance for Obama’s White House and his re-election campaign.
As always the partisan American media sifts through this second debate with tinted lenses. Those Obama supporters who were reeling in shock after the first debate seem relieved as they hasten to portray this as a great resurgence from the President; confirmation that he is indeed equipped for a second term. On the other hand Fox News, in what is an ironic acknowledgment of defeat for Romney, have quickly moved to lambaste CNN referee Candy Crowley as part of team Obama – are they accusing someone of partisanship? Such is American politics. Fox’s claim stems from Crowley’s interference in the debate. A question was posed by the audience about the attack on the US embassy in Libya on September 11th in which four American lives were lost including the ambassador. Romney took this opportunity to once more probe the President on his response to the event. Obama came out firmly saying, “The suggestion that anybody in my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive” he delivered this while never breaking a steely stare at his opponent. Obama’s focus, which was glaringly lacking in the first debate, had returned. Romney pushed further stating that Obama had been slow to condemn the act as a terrorist attack. At this point debate mediator Crowley stepped in correcting Romney saying that Obama had in fact stated that the attack was ‘an act of terror’ the day after rather than fourteen days later as Romney had stated. Romney has on a number of occasions tried to politicise the Libyan attack and it has backfired. If there is one thing Americans can be bipartisan about it is on issues where American lives have been lost.
Romney’s main focus was Obama’s record in office. There are four years of evidence which the Republican Party and Romney are hoping is enough to dissuade voters from giving Obama a second term. Romney praised Obama’s oratory skills and vision but pointed to the record the American people now have to go on, “(Oratory) That’s wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn’t been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and social security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need.” Romney knows that American voters care about the economy. This election will be won on that front. So he kept reiterating the economic failures of the last four years and the rising deficit. He said that, “The President is putting us on a road to Greece.” Nothing strikes fear into the American electorate like pointing to the economic mess of old world Europe. Although his attack on Obama’s record was effective Romney stymied himself with over-emphasis on the figures. Obama took each of Romney’s questions about the numbers and managed to respond with an anecdote that showed him as a man of vision. He painted a picture with the stories he told and these pictures were far more effective than the numbers.
Romney was trying to blame the recession on the President, who inherited it off the past administration in 2008. But Obama has been in charge for four years so he must be held to account. Unemployment levels are at 7% this is the same level they were at when Obama came into office. Romney claimed that this is due to huge numbers leaving the workforce distorting the figures. He still pointed to the 23 million out of work. Jobs and job creation are the biggest concerns of the electorate as they head to the polls. Both candidates were unclear on how they were going create these jobs. The past dominated this debate. With regard to the future Obama avoided laying out any clear legislative agenda for his second term, this is a valid criticism of him. In his first term in office he faced major opposition in both houses since the mid-term elections. The mid-term defeats hampered much of his legislative agenda. Obama did not address how he would deal with this opposition in a second term.
Obama targeted Romney in a way that he simply hadn’t done in the first debate. He was consistently calling him out for being wrong, inferring that he was lying to the electorate. He challenged Romney’s assertions at every turn not allowing him the momentum he garnered in the first debate. Romney’s maths was called into contention. Obama said that even to independent experts Romney’s budget plans ‘didn’t add up’. About Romney’s proposed tax cuts and increased military spending Obama asked, “Where will you get this (money)?” Obama pointed out that he would either blow up the deficit with such plans or have to seek large cuts elsewhere namely the PlannedParenting. Romney responded by highlighting the 4 trillion dollar deficit that Obama has presided over. He then used his own time in business, and as Governor, as proof that he could balance the budget.
Another flashpoint in this debate was a cohort of women voters who were seen as being undecided. Obama was measured in the way he pointed to the pay equality legislation that he enacted during his first term. Romney said that as Governor he sought to redress the imbalance of his male dominated cabinet by hiring a number of women. In a bizarre statement he said that his staff gave him ‘whole binders full of women’ to choose from for his cabinet. This statement has since gone viral.
Obama used his final two minutes to bring up the ‘47% of Americans’ who Romney accused of not taking responsibility for their lives. This was calculated as Romney had had his final say and couldn’t rebut. Obama stressed that this 47% were hard-working Americans on whom the country is dependent.
These debates are usually staid affairs. The time restrictions and formatted nature of them doesn’t allow much scope for in-depth policy debate. The answers are rehearsed ad nauseum and serve to reiterate main party points that the public are always aware of. The focus really is on flair, personal style and engagement. After the first debate Obama’s supporters needed confirmation that he was fighting for a second-term. They got that. Obama was much more up-beat. He emerged from his chair at every opportunity to challenge Romney.
Next week in Florida they come face to face for the last installment. The debate is on foreign policy, this is a strong suit for Obama and he should consolidate the gains he made on Tuesday in New York. Romney will have a chance to bring up Libya once more but in my view this would be a mistake. Either way these debates will only convince a number of swing-voters. Neither candidate has focused their attention on the future; instead both have mined each other’s pasts. In the run in to the polls what will really decide this election is the economy. The future of the American economy, that is what the people care about. It will be a case of the electorate asking themselves do they believe Obama has them on the path out of this recession and whether they see his work to date as deserving of four more years? If not they will turn to the alternative and see if they have something tangible to offer. The tangible will have to be jobs.