President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, met for their second presidential debate Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Both candidates were, on the whole, well prepared and capable of defending their respective positions on the issues during the town-hall style debate. Moderator Candy Crowley also did a laudable job in her role, keeping the candidates on topic and promoting intense discussion.
According to polling after the first debate, Romney was the clear victor. A CNN/ORC International poll declared that 67 percent of voters thought he won, while only 25 percent thought Obama did a better job. However, a poll by the same two organizations following the second debate gave Obama the victory by a margin of 46 percent to 39 percent. An internal Romney campaign memo, released by CNN before the first debate, showed that people within the campaign expected Obama to win, calling him a “uniquely gifted speaker.” This did not, however, prove to be true during the first debate, which focused solely on domestic policy.
The second debate had questions in both the foreign and domestic policy arenas, which were addressed to the candidates from undecided voters. Questions came about education, energy policy, taxes, equal pay for women, the consulate attack in Benghazi, and other topics. Both Obama and Romney had good answers as well as weak points, and each accused the other of lying at various points throughout the night. Fact checking has validated some of those accusations.
When Obama was asked about equal pay for women, who in the United States currently only make 72 percent as much money as their male counterparts, he responded by touting how he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed as president. This legislation amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its directives on the statute of limitations for filing equal-pay discrimination lawsuits under that act. The president also reiterated his commitment to preventing discrimination and said that it is something he will continue to fight for in the next four years.
Next, Romney had the opportunity to respond to the question, and he described his time as governor of Massachusetts to make a point. According to his account, as governor, he was searching for qualified people to comprise his cabinet. When the names came to him, they were all men, so he said that he approached women’s groups to find qualified women for the positions, and in return, they provided him with “binders full of women” who were qualified. This remark became one of the most memorable of the debate, going viral across the Internet. However, the remark was not entirely true; women’s groups did indeed provide Romney with the names and resumes of women qualified for cabinet positions, but they approached him with the idea, rather than the other way around. In addition to this obfuscation, Obama pointed out that Romney and his campaign have repeatedly deflected the question of whether Romney would have signed the Ledbetter bill had he been president.
A question on which Romney did quite well and successfully made his point, however, was first directed to the president. The questioner wanted to know what to expect over the next four years, depending on who would be president. Obama responded by touting his accomplishments, such as health care reform, attacking the leadership of al-Qaida and creating some 5 million jobs. Romney’s rebuttal to this was effective. He mentioned that more people are on food stamps now than there were four years ago and that the president had not lowered the unemployment rate as far as he said he would and didn’t deal with immigration challenges. Romney said that the president was a great speaker and fantastic at describing his plans for the country, but Romney used solid, real examples to detract from the president’s accomplishments.
When asked about immigration, both candidates had good responses. However, Romney’s had little force to back them up while the president could stand upon achievements such as the DREAM Act, which provides pathways to permanent residency to the children of illegal immigrants. Both candidates had similar points, such as saying that they wished to stop illegal immigration while still making it possible for people to come to the U.S. legally. Romney said he wished to provide pathways to permanent residence for children of illegal aliens, but Obama effectively responded by reminding the crowd and viewers that Romney said during the Republican primaries he would veto the DREAM Act. Obama also attacked Romney for saying that the highly controversial Arizona immigration law was a good model for the nation. Romney also managed to take the discussion off the topic of immigration during that section of the debate and began speaking about pensions, specifically those of the president, which appeared to be a transparent attempt to remove focus from much of the public debate over Romney’s various overseas investments.
A contentious topic on the evening of the debate was the attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. Obama was asked why security was not enhanced at the consulate before the attack due to State Department information that there was a possible threat. Obama dodged the specific question, but he did discuss his handling of the situation once it occurred. He also criticized Romney for making the issue into a political one and trying to score political points for it. Romney responded by criticizing the Obama administration’s overall policy in the Middle East. Shortly after, Obama talked about how he handled the situation the day after the attack, including how he called it an “act of terror” in a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House. Romney rebutted by saying that the president did not do so and in fact took two weeks to declare the attack one of terror. After some argument, Crowley intervened and said that Obama had in fact called the attack an act of terror the day after it happened, which at the time seemed a positive for Obama. This was true, though in the debate aftermath, based on transcripts and various comments, it is also true that the Obama administration did wait some time to remove the notion that the cause of the attack and the riot was an anti-Islamic video. In the end, both Obama and Romney were correct in some regards about their comments on this particular issue.
Overall, the second presidential debate had a very different feel from the first. Both Obama and Romney had strong and weak moments. Romney was, at times, sanctimonious and childish, arguing churlishly with the moderator about who should have the last word. However, he also made his points clear and was capable of defending his positions. Obama appeared far more likable in this debate and was less aloof, professorial and condescending than in the first, which showed in his seven-point victory. With both men having won a debate, one debate remaining, and less than three weeks until Election Day, it will be interesting to see what happens next.
Editor’s note: The author self-identifies as a supporter of President Obama who has donated to his re-election campaign. That said, this article is intended to be a commentary on the performance of both candidates in the second presidential debate, not a piece specifically supporting either candidate.