Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ten observations from the second presidential debate

1.      Unlike the first debate, this one was worth staying up for. A good array of audience questions, well moderated, with follow up questions, ensured we got a proper contest rather than the drab affair in Denver. Although as an unashamed Obama supporter anything would have been better than two weeks ago.

 I also really liked the format and the setting. The audience wrapped around the two men making it seem intimate but almost simultaneously claustrophobic. Something similar should be tried in Britain at the next general election, assuming all three party leaders agree to them again. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have any choice.

2.     These men really don’t appear to like one another. Lots of finger-jabbing and pointing and dismissive glances. At one point Romney treated the president with a curt: “you’ll get your moment in a minute. I’m speaking.”

3.      Mitt Romney made a strong start but, unlike the Denver debate, faded. He ran out of puff about 40-50 minutes in and sounded repetitive, often failing to answer questions directly, instead using it to lay out his grand economic plan whilst trashing Obama’s record.

4.      Romney was at his best, his most commanding, his most polished, when talking about the economy. He attacked the rising deficit, the unemployment figures, especially amongst women, and what he sees as policies which are crippling not healing the economy.

5.       Obama couldn’t have been any worse than the first debate. Luckily for his supporters he wasn’t. In fact he raised his game as much as his aides had been briefing he would. He made a slow start but quickly got into his stride giving a terrific response to the second question on energy and what had been achieved in four years, and what would still be achieved with a heavy focus on renewables. Romney’s insistence that America drill and drill like never before, would have made even the softest of environmentalists weep.

6.      Both men gave weak answers to the question on gun control. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, but to listen to the right to bear arms being defended makes the average Brit/European despair. Even after Obama had described the number of times he’s had to console grieving school shooting victims’ families, better enforcement of the current law was his only solution. That’s all. Guns, God and cars. The untouchables of American politics.

7.      Romney’s “binders full of women” comment was unfortunate and clumsy but hardly catastrophic. We’ve all heard far worse. Romney’s said far worse. By his gaffe-prone standards this was lame stuff.

8.      The Libya question and the reaction to the killing of the US ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi showed us Obama at his strongest and most statesmanlike. It also demonstrated how being tough on national security is a must almost from day one for a Democratic president. For a Republican, this is a given. Romney’s accusation that Obama failed to treat the attack as a terrorist one (as opposed to being part of the protests for the anti Muslim film) and then spent several days back on the campaign trail was met with an angry response. Not only did Romney have his facts wrong, as the debate moderator pointed out (a convention breaker? Not the done thing at these debates I imagine), but Obama didn’t take too kindly to the charge that he had handled this badly and insensitively.

My own view is that the Obama camp treating the incident as “an act of terror” before waiting a couple of weeks to actually confirm this, strengthens not weakens his response. What’s wrong with waiting until all the facts are fully known? Isn’t this the correct and most appropriate thing to do before jumping in all guns blazing?

9.       President Obama was consistent throughout in his view that the wealthiest should pay the most in taxes, a point he hammered home time and again. Romney reiterated his opposition to such a stance. A clear dividing line laid out once again in full view of the public’s gaze.

10.  Romney knows he doesn’t have the personality, the charisma, or charm of Obama. Even those who disagree with Obama’s policies prefer him as a person. The final question, and my personal favourite, asked of both men: “What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” Apart from spelling out how much he cares for all Americans (i.e. not the 47% he dismissed), Romney brushed the question aside and used it as another chance to say what he’d do if he became president, and what Obama has failed to do. Obama’s reply was quite interesting, focusing on what he sees as the misunderstanding that people have of him that the government can do everything, including creating jobs.  He also, much to the delight of his base no doubt and what he failed to mention in Denver, used this as his opportunity to ram Romney’s 47% comment back down his throat.

Instant polls called the debate for Obama. From what I saw I would have given it 55-45 in Obama’s favour.  Will it reverse the tide of support for Romney? Possibly. Does it strengthen Romney? Unlikely, but neither does it weaken him much. Will this performance please Obama’s base? Definitely.

But I can’t see much change in the polling. With so many polls released and so many presenting such conflicting pictures it’s hard to know what to believe. I think the most sensible conclusion, and one other commentators have been pushing for weeks, is that the debates won’t change an awful lot. Most voters have already made up their minds. Romney’s surge has come too late in the day. The Obama team have run a campaign as rigorous and as organised as four years ago targeting key swing voters a lot earlier, and in greater numbers, than Romney. My prediction of several months still stands: Obama to win by three points.
This article was jointly published by Speaker's Chair and Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 17th October 2012

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