A lean and hungry Obama devastated his opponent’s foreign policy credentials last night in a one-sided debate which didn’t see Romney score a single significant point. In every exchange Obama was the more authoritative and assured, better prepared and better tested than the challenger.
Before the debate I immodestly offered Obama three pieces of advice: construct a master-narrative and stick to it throughout; answer the emotional core of each question, instead of offering endless lists of policy proposals; and paint clear contrasts with his opponent at every turn.
Obama did all three last night, with an assurance and skill I have never seen in his debate performances. On almost every issue he provided a clear, emotionally-compelling and simple response before going on to offer a stinging critique of his opponent in terms which called into question Romney’s fitness to lead.
One example of Obama’s masterful performance: his answer to the predictable charge that he had made an “apology tour” at the start of his Presidency, apologizing for America wherever he went. Obama, as he was all night, seemed comfortably prepared for the criticism – even eager to answer it – and responded as follows (thanks to NPR for the transcript):
Romney: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to — to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to — to Turkey and Iraq. And — and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
Obama: You know, if we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken, you know, when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops.
And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.
And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.
So that’s how I’ve used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.
And the central question at this point is going to be, who’s going to be credible to all parties involved?
And they can look at my track record — whether it’s Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities — and they can say that the president of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history. And — and that kind of credibility is precisely why we’ve been able to show leadership on a wide range of issues facing the world right now.
He identifies the central emotional charge being made: that he is a weak “apologizer” who doesn’t stand up for America, and doesn’t care about Israel. He counters by describing his very first (and therefore, it is implied, most important) trip as candidate for President – to Israel. He describes the trip in powerful emotional terms, raising the specter of the Holocaust and giving affecting details of the families he met in the border towns of Sderot, and referencing his own family and imagining if it were his own kids at threat. And then, only after he has established his credibility (Ethos) and the right emotional tone (Pathos), does he explain his policies (Logos): Iran sanctions, counterterrorism, supporting democracy etc.
He links his answer to a master-narrative about himself and Romney, suggesting Romney cannot be trusted with foreign policy. This is implied from the start, when Obama recalls the image of Romney’s disastrous foreign policy tour. It is made explicit in the middle of the response: “the central question at this point is going to be, who’s going to be credible to all parties involved?” He wants the audience to focus on this big question: him or me? Who do you trust more on these issues? And throughout the debate he focuses attention on the big choice facing the American people. The repeated use of the terms “wrong and reckless” and “all over the map” to describe Romney also played into this master-narrative, which was introduced early and frequently reinforced.
He makes numerous explicit and implicit contrasts between his capabilities and Romney’s. In my post I suggested Obama needed to paint “heaven” and “hell” scenarios, presenting clear choice-points and contrasts between himself and Romney. He does this throughout this answer, contrasting his emotional, resonant, honest trip to Israel with Romney’s fundraising junket; implicitly contrasting his successful foreign policy trip as a candidate with Romney’s disastrous one; and repeatedly referencing the choice before the electorate.
This is debating at its best: emotionally intelligent, credible, and pregnant with fact. Even on domestic and economic issues – issues it’s clear Romney was desperate to discuss last night – Obama gave his most compelling responses yet, his closing statement outlining a vision of where he would go in the next four years which has been absent in previous debates.
With his command of fact, feeling, and frankness Obama convincingly outclassed Romney in each and every exchange of this debate. Romney brought nothing to the table. Obama now heads into the election having turned the trajectory of momentum in his direction – let’s hope it’s enough.