It’s Tuesday night, and I’m sitting in front of my television trying to make sense of what I just saw from the second presidential debate. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney both put in strong performances, and my initial impression is that it was a draw.
The first thing that struck me was Obama’s attitude. After the first debate, in which Obama was incredibly passive and was handed a huge loss by Mitt Romney, he came across as a much stronger, more combative debater.
This was not unchecked by Mitt Romney: there were fierce back-and-forth matches between the two candidates throughout the debate. Obama’s body language and facial expressions were also much improved. However, he did sport a quiet grin that resembled the snarky, sarcastic grin that turned many people off from Joe Biden during the vice presidential debate.
Both sides used wrong or misleading facts. President Obama claimed that Operation Fast and Furious, the gun-walking program that resulted in the murders of hundreds of Mexican and American citizens at the hands of drug cartels, was started under the Bush administration.
ABC’s Jake Tapper called him out shortly after the debate, confirming on ABC.com that the program was in fact started in October 2009. Romney, when discussing women’s jobs, cited a figure of 580,000 jobs lost by women under Obama’s watch that, according to updated labor figures, is actually closer to 283,000.
Some points were just messy. On the subject of fossil fuel production, Mitt Romney repeated the critique that oil production is down on federal land by 14 percent. This is true – according to Politico’s initial fact-check, oil production dropped from 726 million barrels in 2010 to 627 million barrels in 2011. However, Obama’s counter-claim that oil production was actually up slightly under his watch was ALSO true: only 619 million barrels were produced in 2007. (The increase into 2010 was likely a result of latent Bush-era policies that hadn’t fully taken effect.)
The format for the debate was a source of frustration. Questions were sometimes completely ignored, but were usually co-opted in the process of making larger political points. More than a few questions were also biased: one particularly bad question asked Mitt Romney to explain how he was different from George W. Bush, forcing Romney to defend his platform and giving Obama a chance to demagogue without fear of serious retribution.
Candy Crowley, the debate moderator, was also a frustrating point. Leading up to the debate, Crowley had expressed interest in playing a more substantive role in the debate apart from just the “referee.”
This definitely came into play with her frequently pointed follow-up questions. Her efforts to rein in responses instigated several disruptive matches with both Romney and Obama as she tried to maintain control of the debate. Romney seemed to get the short end of that stick: not only was Mitt denied the opportunity to respond effectively to several accusations by Obama, but time-counters after the debate found that Obama had over three minutes more speaking time than Romney.
Crowley clearly overstepped her role by acting as an on-the-spot “fact-checker” late in the debate. During a heated question on Libya, Romney criticized Obama for failing to label the Benghazi attack as a terror attack early on. Crowley jumped in, referencing the transcript and saying that Obama did use the phrase “act of terror” in his initial response speech. Obama supporters in the audience cheered, violating the no-applause rule. After the debate, however, Crowley admitted that Obama’s use of the “act of terror” phrase in that speech was vague, and that Romney’s point that the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack was muddled was basically correct. Her interference on that question heavily impacted public perception of the debate.
While hardcore liberal and conservative bloggers have already begun making early cases for why Obama or Romney won, I don’t think either side landed a clear win. Romney met Obama’s new-found fighting spirit head on, and the two threw basically the same amount of punches back and forth. Both had clear strengths and weaknesses on key issues.
However, the President was unable to clearly defeat Mitt in response to the verbal beating he took in the first debate. This means that Mitt’s recent surge in momentum will most likely continue, and this is going to crank up the pressure on Obama for the third debate. Until then, the competition leading up to November 6 will be even more fierce.
David Giffin is a second year Masters in Theological Studies student at Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.