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
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT