Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

The second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney proved to be another clash between two expert rhetoricians. The winner of the debate depends on which poll you read, indicating that this continues to be a tight political race. Viewed in terms of pure rhetorical skill, however, the night goes to President Obama.

The Jobs Question: The Importance of Logos and Primacy

Take, for instance, the first question, posed by a nervous college student named Jeremy about whether he will be able to find a job when he graduates. (The nervousness of many of the questioners last night highlights just how skilled both Obama and Romney are. Most people are terrified to speak in public. You can see that both Obama and Romney deliver A-level rhetorical performances time and again when you compare them to the everyday folks who posed the questions during the debate.)

Romney replied with an answer that was no answer at all. His reply: A woman in Philadelphia asked the same question; we have to make sure there are jobs when you graduate; in Massachusetts we used to give scholarships to people to help them with college; let’s keep the Pell grant program; and “I know what it takes to get this economy going.” Romney has specific ideas to address the problem that Jeremy poses, but he gave no specifics in this answer. He alludes to a scholarship program without explaining why he’s talking about it—is he proposing that he will initiate such a program if he becomes president? (Unlikely.) His assertion that he knows what it takes to grow the economy, without any explanation of what he will do, essentially asks the audience to take him on faith about that claim. His final salvo sounds like an odd promise to personally employ Jeremy himself upon graduation: “When you come out in 2014, I presume I’m going to be president. I’m going to make sure you get a job. Thanks Jeremy. Yeah, you bet.” One of the essential tools of verbal persuasion is logos, or logic, which requires a speaker to be able to line up facts concisely and coherently. Romney has specific answers to Jeremy’s question, which you can discern by piecing together some of his other statements during the debate, but he didn’t articulate them here.

This moment was reminiscent of the first question of the first presidential debate, in which President Obama stumbled in a similar way over his explanation of his jobs plan. In our post about that debate (which you can read here), we pointed out that the clear structure of Romney’s answer to the same question made it a strong response, easy to process. During this second debate, it was Obama whose first answer contained a structure you can hear: “Number one, I want to build manufacturing jobs in this country again…. Number two, we’ve got to make sure that we have the best education system in the world,” and so forth. It’s a simple but effective rhetorical technique: If we can hear where one thought ends and the next begins, we are more likely to follow what you are saying. And the more substantive answer is the more satisfying answer, so you have to figure out how to put in some specifics.

The two responses to the first question also illustrate the importance of the start of any speech, which psychologists call the “moment of primacy.” During those first moments, you make a first impression that is likely to stick with listeners. And if that first moment goes well, you will give yourself a needed boost of confidence. Good things can follow a good opening moment.

During the first debate, Gov. Romney’s response to the first question gave him that extra jolt of assurance that he needed, and as a result his performance soared. He seemed relaxed, confident and dynamic. In contrast, Romney’s performance during the second debate was more agitated and defensive. It was Obama, instead, who got a boost from his first answer, and seemed to take off from there.

You can watch both candidates answer the first question here (and again, apologies for the ads–we can’t figure out how to get rid of them):

The Pay Equity for Women Question: The Power of Concise Explanations

Another moment to watch during this debate was the president’s explanation of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This is a piece of legislation enacted in 2009 that arose out of a pay discrimination lawsuit brought by a woman, Lilly Ledbetter, a production supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama. Ledbetter discovered that she was being paid significantly less than male employees, but the Supreme Court said that she could not sue because her claim was made more than 180 days after the alleged discriminatory action of her employer. Four justices dissented, arguing that the pay information of other employees is typically confidential, which means that you may not know that you are being paid unfairly until the 180-day period has long since passed. In reaction to the lawsuit, Congress enacted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to enable plaintiffs to incorporate discriminatory acts outside of the 180-day statute of limitations period if the discrimination is ongoing.

Confusing? Not when President Obama explained it:

One of the challenges of verbal persuasion is taking complex information and distilling it to its essential parts so that the audience can digest it, without leaving out important facts. Obama’s discussion of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a good example of how to do this.
Romney’s answer, in contrast, again offered very little substance. He spoke of staffing his state cabinet with women in senior leadership positions, an admirable goal, but his description of the staffing process, with its “binders full of women,” conjured images of soliciting a mail-order bride and completely ignored why it was hard to find female candidates in the first place:

I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified? And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of women.

He offers two solutions to the problem of pay discrimination: Grow the economy (which ensures more jobs for everyone, but not that women in those jobs will be paid fairly), and ensure flexibility in the workplace. Just as with his answer about Massachusetts’ scholarship program for high school students, it was unclear whether Gov. Romney imagines that flexibility in the workplace would be something that he as president should mandate, but it seems unlikely that he would believe that to be the role of government. His description of why women need more flexibility—so that they can “get home at 5 [to] . . . make dinner for [their] kids”—only applies to a subset of the women in the workforce and conjures up a fairly dated view of women’s work. What about the women like Lilly Ledbetter, whose lawsuit was brought as she reached retirement age, or the childless women who, despite avoiding the demands of dinner-making, nevertheless encounter differential treatment because of gender?

The Libya Question: Avoiding Tactical Errors

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate occurred during a discussion of the terrorist attack against the American consulate in Benghazi. Obama’s initial answer to the question, “Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?” wasn’t great because it took him many paragraphs to get to his actual answer: “I am ultimately responsible.” A debate answer is strongest if you answer the question directly and quickly, without many paragraphs of wind-up and digression.

But Romney made two tactical mistakes in his answer that quickly shifted the focus to his poor response instead. First, he concentrated on Obama’s travels to Las Vegas and Colorado after the attack, which is not as strong an argument as pressing the president on why the security measures were what they were. This gave Obama an opportunity to make one of the most memorable statements of the debate, in which he sounded much more presidential than Romney:

The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families. And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.

Romney’s second tactical error was to try to insist that Obama hadn’t called the attack an act of terror. He was corrected by the moderator in this cringe-worthy moment, which culminated in the audience laughing and clapping:

Both Obama and Romney are extremely good at verbal persuasion, so Romney fans needn’t fear—their candidate is likely to pull out all the stops during the third debate. But the second debate, rhetorically speaking, goes to the president.

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One Response to Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

  1. I am so glad to read these words that articulate so well what happened in the debate.

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