Was Obama too relentless with Romney?

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.”

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.