Us President Barack Obama solved his rhetorical problems on Tuesday night. Unlike the first presidential debate, Obama came out swinging and never stopped critiquing his opponent Mitt Romney. Obama was particularly effective explaining where Romney's proposals don't make sense and where they contradict his previous statements and record as governor of Massachusetts.
The debate was in a "town hall" format: The candidates responded directly to questions from the audience, supposedly composed of average Americans who are undecided voters. This format emphasizes some of the problems with American democracy.
Half of the questions focused on the immediate problems of the person asking them: gas prices, job prospects or tax reductions for the middle class. American ideology actually encourages this kind of self-interested perspective: Competition is supposed to solve all social problems and voters are supposed to think of the president in terms of what he can do for them, not the larger society.
Romney tried to take advantage of this self-interested slant. He attacked Obama's commitment to environmental protection, suggesting that Americans will have more and better jobs and cheaper energy if US industry can have free reign over its operations, unimpeded by the requirement to limit pollution. This kind of argument asks voters to ignore more distant concerns like environmental degradation or global warming.
Romney's more general strategy was to continually reiterate negative economic indicators - high unemployment, rising gas prices, slowed economic growth - in an effort to encourage voters to focus only on immediate circumstances. At one point, Romney went so far as to suggest that voters only needed to know one thing in order to understand the complex economic problems the US faces: that gas prices have gone up.
This focus on short-sighted goals reflects a kind of intellectual helplessness that is perhaps exacerbated by the effort to appeal to undecided voters, who tend to know less about the issues than other Americans.
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