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Presidential Debate No. 2: What We Need to Hear Tonight

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When I wrote my last column about the first presidential debate I didn’t expect to be so... right. President Obama’s performance had his supporters on the verge of calling the election a wrap and moving to Canada. While he certainly didn’t have his best night, I think some of the reaction was a little over the top. (I’m looking at you, Andrew Sullivan.)  That said, even the President acknowledged that it wasn’t his best outing and that he needs to do better tonight. Below are my thoughts on tonight's debate and who the real losers have been in the past two debates.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden certainly made Democrats happy with his spirited performance, and folks are calling on Obama to emulate that in the next debate. Those people should slow down. And here’s why: Tonight's debate is a town hall. If you’ve never watched a town hall, perhaps you don’t know, but goodness knows I’ve seen my fair share. Town halls are about empathy and relating to everyday people. This isn’t the venue to be super aggressive. That’s not to say that President Obama shouldn’t be strong and forceful, but there is a level of nuance needed here, so I wouldn’t suggest going full Biden tonight.

What I’m really hoping this town hall format allows is some questions and conversations that have largely gone absent from the first two debates.


Women. Women are more than 50 percent of the population and will likely determine the outcome of the election in many key states. All summer the media has been talking about a “war on women,” so I figured there would be a question or two in the first debate about women’s issues. When that didn’t happen I figured Martha Raddatz would get to it in the VP debate. Well, she did, but not really. Her question on abortion was framed in a way that I think let the two men on the stage off the hook. My CAP colleague Alyssa Rosenberg came up with MUCH better questions that could have been asked.

The Poor. Aside from Paul Ryan’s brief mentions of poor people (don’t even get me started on his hypocrisy there), poverty wasn’t raised as a question yet. The poor make up a sizeable portion of the electorate, yet it is all too often the case that the poor go unnoticed in our national discourse. But if a presidential debate isn’t the right time to bring it up, then I don’t know when the right time is. The number of poor in this country is obviously a detriment to our national security. But more than that, it’s a shame that in a country as wealthy as ours, there are so many who suffer. (You can help put pressure on Candy Crowley to #TalkPoverty.)

People of color. By 2042, there will be no ethnic majority in this country. That demographic change is fueled by a growth in communities of color. Unfortunately, the communities that are growing the fastest are also those that face the greatest disparities. When it comes to wealth, assets, educational attainment and health, people of color lag behind their white counterparts. So given our demographic destiny, and the importance that these communities will have on our economy, how is it that not ONE question has been raised asking these candidates what they will do to close the gaps? Not one question on addressing the dropout rates, not one on the lack of savings and assets among families of color, and not even one on the hot topic of immigration.

The questions that have been asked have been, for the most part, important ones. But they are not the only issues that the American people care about. Since most of us can’t walk up to the President or Governor Romney and ask them these questions, we have to rely on the media to do it for us. So, I’ll grab my popcorn tonight and have my iPhone in my other hand, hoping for a debate that covers more topics and gets some good answers out of both candidates.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123

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