2nd Presidential Debate: Answering questions in the town hall setting

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In this debate, Obama was very good at answering questions. He listened very attentively, and then focussed coolly on individual aspects of the question, answering each in turn to showcase his position. He uses a relatively simple tactic in answering, namely to give highly structured and “signposted” answers – signposting meaning adding words and phrases to highlight the structure of the argument. It’s illuminating to listen to the way the candidates respond to the initial question by Jeremy Epstein, the college student who asks for reassurance that he will find a job after his studies.

Romney refers back to the last four years and says “I know what it takes to get this economy going”, repeating “I know what it takes” again and again as he starts new phrases. This is an example of hollow, unfounded repetition, which is completely ineffective as a political rhetorical device.

Obama by contrast accentuates the details: i.e. creating not just new, but good jobs, those that support the family, detailing the areas that need special attention. He signposts each one explicitly (“number one”, “number two”…), which makes him seem completely in control, and able to make transparent what he is doing and thinking.

In many questions, Romney evades the question and tells general stories that accentuate the difficulties that people are currently in, and uses the general argument “I know what it takes to make the economy work.” By contrast, Obama focuses on a key area of the question and picks up on related specific policy decisions, and then explains the effects these have on the citizens’ lives in that area, creating emotional and intellectual involvement that puts Romney at a disadvantage. These micro-policy-presentations must surely be extensively rehearsed, and Obama can retrieve them from memory at will, when he needs them.

In the debate setup, when one speaker has gone, he does not get a chance to respond to the response. In Romney’s case, this in several cases causes him to lose his cool, to the point where, after he has been “beaten” by Obama in an exchange, he can’t move on directly to answer the next question. Back-paddling at the beginning of the following question, and saying that the opponent’s statements are false, is ineffective in a debate, where each point is a separate entity and must stand on its own – unlike in a less structured discussion. The second speaker on each point has the advantage of being able to pick out the weaknesses of the first. This is something a good listener can do far better than someone who simply repeats his beliefs or states unrelated “facts”. In a debate, both candidates have to think on their feet, but the second respondent has to think more deeply and in greater complexity.

This debate was much more aggressive, and emotions flared, despite the town hall setting, where candidates often avoid divisive, head to head debate. After all, citizens want to look up to their presidential candidates. Overall, after the first debate went to Romney, Obama supporters really wanted their candidate to get into the ring and show Romney who’s President. And he did.

Who will win this election? The polls say it’s very, very close, but I’m betting on the incumbent, and I hope his supporters all go out and vote. My ballot goes out today.


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