A town hall format is a tricky format for a presidential debate. It's supposed to be the one truly democratic debate. The moderator chooses questions from undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Candidates, of course, have their agendas ready and use any opportunity to return, again and again, to their own talking points.
Each candidate is judged by his ability to connect with people, by poking holes in his candidate's logic and by his ability to move gracefully across the town hall space while trying to convince the audience there and at home that he genuinely cares about their lives and has credible plans to improve them.
The substance of what they said was often less important than the image each candidate projected. How he spoke, how he looked, how he walked, truly mattered. The large television audience could detect which candidate felt comfortable in his own skin and had to decide who they found personable, charming and yet, down to earth. At stake tonight was whether the audience thought that President Barack Obama cared more about ordinary Americans than Mitt Romney, known for his extraordinary wealth and promotion of tax cuts for the wealthy.
So how did they do? This time, President Obama came off forceful, but in a presidential and effective manner. This time he did not allow Romney to spout his litany of lies. In fact, he frequently invaded Romney's space to say that his opponent's statement was not true. His face, attentive and animated, sometimes grew angry when Romney repeated the same lies he had deployed in the first presidential debate. This may sound odd, but even though Mitt Romney is a conventionally handsome man, he looked pasty and pale next to President Barack Obama. If Richard Nixon looked too dark with his five o'clock beard, Mitt Romeny looked too white next to Obama's honey-colored skin.
If I had been in the audience, I would have asked them questions that are not often asked and almost always evaded. I would have asked how they intend to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I would have asked them what they would do to stop the foreclosure of one more family's home. I would have asked how they would close the gaping wealth inequality that is destroying America's middle class. I would have asked them why they can't return to the taxes of the 1950s, when the wealthy paid 90 percent and more of their income and investments. I would have asked them why we keep about 800 military bases open, while we close libraries, schools, and watch our universities, infrastructure, and health care decline. I would have asked them whether they believe the American people are "entitled" to food, shelter and education. (Romney had said they are not.) I would have asked them to explain why citizens pay taxes. And, finally, I would have asked them to name ten issues, aside from abortion, that directly affect the lives of women.
So what did the audience actually ask? Turns out that the questions were mostly predictable -- "how will I get a job after college?" -- and the answers fit the two candidates' political philosophies. Mitt Romney wants everyone to do it on his own; Barack Obama reminded the audience how his grandfather's G.I. program after WWII put him through college.
The real surprise was about women. This was the question I would have asked, and amazingly, it came up. A young woman asked what each candidate would do about the pay inequity that gives women 72 cents for every dollar men earn. For the first time, Obama explained why discrimination against women are everyone's issues. He reminded the audience that he had signed legislation that gave women workers equal pay; he also pointed out that he had funded Planned Parenthood, as opposed to Romney who had said he would stop funding it. Obama told the audience that women's issues also included his Obamacare health program, Social Security, Medicare and fairer loans to students. Taking on Romney's anti-immigration policies, Obama reminded the audience that he had supported the Dream Act, which would allow students of illegal parents to remain in the United States. Romney, by contrast, had opposed the Dream Act.
Obama's success rested on his willingness to list the considerable accomplishments he has achieved during his administration. He withdrew the United States from two wars, passed a stimulus bill that prevented another Great Depression, he saved the automobile and financial industries, sought -- but failed -- to raise the taxes on the wealthiest Americas; eliminated Osama bin Laden; jump-started new technologies for clean energy; forced the auto industry to create fuel efficient cars; and reminded people that women are more than the sum of their reproductive organs.
In short, President Obama not only won this debate; he came across as a powerful president who is genuinely with expanding the middle class by creating jobs built on new technology and energy for the 21st century, as opposed to Romney, who promotes using fossil fuels and cutting the taxes of the wealthy.
The differences couldn't be greater. This time Obama seemed presidential, a man in change, a leader with a vision of a society in which wealth inequity is closed, the middle class once again prospers, and everyone can once again imagine a future for their families.
This article was first published by OpenDemocracy.net Wednesday, October 4th.