Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Was Obama too relentless with Romney?

By Alan Schroeder, Special to CNN
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/16/politics/gallery/second-presidential-debate/index.html'>See the best photos from the second presidential debate.</a> President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.
HIDE CAPTION
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
The final presidential debate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Schroeder: At final debate, Mitt Romney was placid, Barack Obama was aggressive
  • Schroeder: Romney, lacking foreign credentials, tried to project an aura of unflappability
  • He said some will ask whether Obama crossed the line into inappropriate aggression
  • Schroeder: Whether this debate affects the trajectory of the election remains to be seen

Editor's note: Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV."

(CNN) -- The third and final Obama-Romney debate may not change many minds, but as a study in competing strategies, it is certain to ignite strong opinions all around. Although the two candidates sat side by side, like guests at a dinner party, each man was playing an entirely different game. Mitt Romney came ready to float like a butterfly, while Barack Obama came ready to sting like a bee.

Romney, the less experienced contender in a debate devoted to international affairs, faced the challenge going in of establishing parity with the president of the United States. Every non-incumbent debater confronts this hurdle when appearing alongside a sitting commander-in-chief: How to demonstrate knowledge and authority in front of tens of millions of voters on issues that your opponent deals with all the time?

Romney's solution, at least in part, was to project an aura of unflappability. Up until the final 10 minutes or so, the Republican nominee maintained an air of regal detachment, largely ignoring the volley of attacks being launched against him by his rival. "Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney said, reworking a line that Bill Clinton first used in a 1996 debate with Bob Dole, but that was about the extent of his counterpunching.

Opinion: Obama in command; Romney plays it safe

Alan Schroeder
Alan Schroeder

Romney's approach made a certain amount of sense, especially from the standpoint of visuals. He wanted voters to envision him as too lofty and presidential to be bothered by petty slings and arrows, and for much of the debate he accomplished his mission.

Those inclined to favor Romney will applaud their candidate for taking the high road, especially in contrast with the more belligerent Obama. To others, however, it will appear that Romney got rolled.

Refusing to get down in the mud meant, among other things, that Romney forfeited his chance to press the president on the killing of America's ambassador to Libya, a point of contention that nearly every pundit had predicted would be a major theme in this debate. And Libya was not the only topic on which Romney gave the president a pass.

Apparently, Obama had a few things to get off his chest left over from the town hall at Hofstra. Or he may still have felt some lingering regret over his passive performance in the first showdown back in Denver. Whatever the case, Obama strode onstage raring to grapple with the governor, which he did in his very first answer of the night. The president's attacks had two objectives: to run a yellow highlighter over Romney's lack of foreign policy chops and to undermine his credibility. On both counts Obama was relentless.

Opinion: Romney endorses Obama's national security policies

Reality Check: China's Impact
Obama, Romney battle over foreign policy
Obama, Romney spar over troops in Iraq

Perhaps too relentless? Just as there will be division over whether Romney's studied placidity was statesmanlike or lethargic, there will be disagreement about whether Obama crossed the line into inappropriate aggression.

In his worst moments Obama sounded downright condescending, as when he prefaced a criticism of Romney with the words, "I know you haven't been in a position to execute foreign policy..."

Still, the president needed to assure voters that he is hungry to be re-elected and willing to put up his dukes and fight for another chance. Obama's energized performance in these past two debates has gone a long way toward healing the wounds he inflicted on himself back in the opening round.

Beyond matters of tone, Obama did a couple of other things right in this debate. More effectively than Romney, he used his response time to riff on topics only tangentially connected to foreign policy, repeatedly shifting the focus back to domestic issues favorable to the Obama cause -- education, taxes, veterans' benefits, and the like. And he told stories, something that does not always come easy to this cerebral man.

Opinion: Romney walked into 'bayonets' line

Of most significance, by the end of the debate Obama had made Romney lose his cool and revert to his old "I'm still talking!" persona. Which meant that the governor's carefully crafted Mount Rushmore strategy never quite reached its final destination.

Whether this debate affects the trajectory of the election remains to be seen. Upon first reading, however, it appears that Obama did better for Obama than Romney did for Romney.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Schroeder.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT