Those looking to harvest good information from the litany of sources bombarding voters about President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney must separate an awful lot of chaff from not all that much wheat. The presidential debates, though, offered a glimpse of each man’s strengths, style and positions on policy. As a critical voter education venue, the debates were worth watching – and still are for those who missed them.
It is unlikely that the debates changed the minds of decided voters. For many viewers and listeners, the banter between Obama and Romney served as confirmation of what they already believe about the two men and their positions on the issues facing the United States. What is instructive, though, is the opportunity to see the candidates delineate and defend those positions in real time. The exercise cuts through the polish of campaign events and fundraisers while also toning down the poison of campaign advertising – the candidates’ own, or worse, that of outside groups. What remains is an informative glimpse of how each man reacts under pressure, stands his ground and articulates his agenda.
In Monday’s debate, Romney and Obama discussed foreign policy and were in agreement on many of the topics. What differed was the nuance of each candidate’s level of knowledge on the issue, as well as his political acumen in gauging what is possible in addressing a particular situation.
The Oct. 16 showdown had the men fielding questions from town-hall attendees. This gave Obama and Romney an opportunity to show how well they connect with voters, understand their concerns and aim to address them meaningfully. Again, style was as telling as substance.
In their first meeting, the candidates were addressing domestic issues, but also providing a baseline for their future debate performances. The bar was set – at different heights for each candidate. Taken together, the debates and their aftermath paint a complex and instructive picture.
The debates also are an industry unto themselves, providing several weeks of work for fact checkers and pundits. Legions of researchers scurried off to verify or debunk what Romney and Obama asserted in Denver, Hempstead, N.Y., and Boca Raton, Fla., and the analysts use both the factual assertions and the way in which they were made to assess candidates’ performances. Those interpretations range in their usefulness to voters, but the sheer volume of analysis is indicative of just how important these relatively unscripted interactions between the candidates is. They may be the only time we see so full a representation of what kind of president each is or would be.