Why Biden v. Ryan Was So Different From Obama v. Romney

Watching the vice presidential debate on Thursday night, the informed viewer could not help but be struck with certain impressions about the evening and its differences from its presidential equivalent last week. While last week’s clash saw the Republican challenger take the game to the Democratic incumbent, forcing him into a passive corner, Thursday saw the opposite, with Joe Biden harrying Paul Ryan, challenging his assertions and refusing to allow what he saw as misrepresentations of either side’s policies. It was, as the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald wrote, ‘a pure reversal of the first presidential debate, but on steroids‘.

The direction that the debate would take was signposted from the very beginning, with not five minutes passing before the first of many incredulous chuckles from Biden at a point Ryan had made. From this point on, in great contrast to Obama’s resigned acceptance of Mitt Romney’s assertions last week, Biden launched fully into attack dog mode; he outright refused to mince his words, labelling Ryan’s claims as ‘malarkey’ and ‘a bunch of stuff’, and that ‘not a single thing he said is accurate’. Had Paul Ryan turned up to the debate expecting to be able to speak unchallenged as Romney had, he was greatly mistaken, as Biden took on the appearance of the frustrated Democrat shouting at the television during last week’s debate.

While Republican commentators have adopted the line that Biden went ‘too far’ in his performance and that independents will have been put off by his laughing and interruptions, a CBS snap poll of undecided voters seemed to contradict this, breaking in his favour 50%-31%.

The contrast between this debate and the first presidential one could not have been greater. Joe Biden showed the passion, anger and frustration with Paul Ryan’s misrepresentations and Mitt Romney’s policies that Barack Obama simply did not last week. The conventional wisdom on this held that a bombastic display was required to offset Obama’s weak performance, but rather than Biden’s actions stemming from his boss’s poor showing, the debate performances of both the President and Vice President alike each came from the same factor: their race.

Obama was attacked from all sides in the aftermath of the first debate for his perceived weakness and passivity. MSNBC accused him of just ‘enduring the debate‘, the Guardian called him ‘nervous, distracted and unprepared‘ and even this own blog deemed him ‘lacklustre to say the least‘. However, had Obama adopted Joe Biden’s aggressive stance, taking Romney to task on his repeated misrepresentations and falsehoods as so many liberal commentators had hoped, would the fallout really have been more positive?

On the eve of the first debate, Fox News and the Daily Caller released a video of Obama speaking at Hampton University in 2007, in a speech that touched on issues such as justice, Hurricane Katrina and his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Tucker Carlson, writing about the speech, labelled it ‘racially charged and at times angry‘, and Fox News pundits such as Sean Hannity claimed it would ‘make people fearful‘. The timing of the release of the tape seemed to many to be ‘an attempt to thrust race… into the 2012 election at a particularly important moment‘. It is difficult to disagree with this analysis, and unfortunately it appears to have worked.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article ‘Fear of a Black President‘ recently pointed out the levels of rage, rudeness and aggression that Obama has evoked from fellow politicians over the course of his term in office, ‘but the rules of our racial politics require that Obama never respond in like fashion‘, lest he receive the dreaded label of an ‘angry black man’. This holds the key to the major difference between Obama’s performance and that of his vice president; Biden had no stereotype to avoid, no preconceived notion to dispel and no need to disguise his contempt for Ryan’s falsehoods. Republicans may have called him disrespectful for his conduct, but much more importantly undecided voters said that he had won.

I wrote last week of the first debate that Obama took on the appearance of a man who came to a fight heavily armed but declined to use any of his weapons. The vital need to avoid the ‘angry black man’ label is the reason why certain swords stayed sheathed. Had he forcefully interjected to reference the 47% video, as Biden did repeatedly against Ryan, he would have been the ‘food stamp president’ flying into a rage to protect his side in the ‘racial class war’ that Fox News is so convinced exists. He was aware that he had to exercise restraint and watch himself, because with three debates on the schedule, it is easier to get over a forgettable performance than one that scares off independents.

Kelly Virella in the Huffington Post takes all this a step further, suggesting that Romney had race on his mind in the debate also, and that this could help explain his shift towards the centre:

Most likely, Romney’s logic is that if white independent voters are given a choice between a black man and a white man with the same ideas, the white voters will choose the white man, because he makes them feel more “comfortable.”

Whether or not it is fair or accurate to accuse Romney of such a calculation, it is surely not too much of a stretch to say that he was aware of the constraints placed on Obama, and therefore more likely to take risks with his manipulations of the facts, knowing he was safe from strong rebuttal.

The vice presidential debate is unlikely to have any real effect on the campaign, considering that both candidates avoided any major errors, and that there are more presidential debates to come, but it was certainly interesting as a potential preview for 2016 as both Biden and Ryan are said to be considering presidential runs in four years time. More so than that, however, it was interesting as a sort of simulation of what might have occurred last week, had the President not been so shackled. With the next debate taking place on Tuesday and Romney pulling ahead in the polls, Obama will have to find somewhere in between his too timid first performance and Biden’s off-limits aggression if he is to take back the lost ground.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

8 responses to “Why Biden v. Ryan Was So Different From Obama v. Romney”

  1. Jueseppi B. says :

    Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat.Com™ and commented:
    For all you “expert pundits” who know jack about being a Black man, let alone a Black POTUS….educate yourselves by reading this post from “Our Friends In The West” and Mr. Charlie Whelton. Why is it a British man understands American politics better than the so called “expert American political pundits”?

  2. katrinataylor44 says :

    Reblogged this on The Educability of Perch and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it better …

  3. mumlawyerlettered2themax says :

    I think this was an interesting piece. After the video was released and Obama was described by the Rove controlled “Drudge Report”, as showing some sort of racist Black man and so on, MANY FOLKS IN THE DEMOCRATIC underground so this as some sort of strategy to mute Obama in the debates. I do not know if he elected to appear so subdued on account of that video. I am not sure. But he was also subdued at the Convention. Did he see the video at that time too?

    My feeling on the matter is simple. Any MA resident who is very politically engaged would say that Romney acted as expected during the debate with Obama. He usually comes out aggressive, lies with equal conviction, makes snide remarks and zingers to infuriate and confuse his opponents, and co-opts all of his opponents ideas that he knows poll well with the electorate. An example would be the pre-existing conditions discourse. It should have been anticipated.


    Anyway, I read some articles prior to the Veep debates that enjoined Biden to be presidential but firm. That was a pile of HOGWASH, and I wrote a Blog to urge an all out assault on Ryan. What folks do not know is that Romney memorizes canned answers, as does Ryan. Their focus is always to overrun their opponents with lies. If Biden had not been as aggressive and relaxed as he was, he would have LOST that debate.

    I have Blogged about this up coming debate. It is better for Obama to come out and be percieved as an angry Black man that WON the debate, as opposed to a polite BLACK man who lost the debate.

    When I repeatedly warned people on numerous sites that Romney was a “good” debater, many folks surprisingly thought that the Romney of the Republican primaries would be the one to show up on the National stage. As most former MA residents that are familiar with Romney’s penchant for stealing his opponents positions, and unleashing an arsenal of lies against them, he was almost certainly going to do the same thing to Obama.

    This time, Obama should be unleashed. Not to the extent that Biden was. But if Kennedy had blinked, or relented for a minute in pounding Romney on and off the debate setting, he would have been labelled as old and tired, and Romney would have won.

    Instead in that election, Romney was labelled a sleaze bag flip flopper, and lost.

    For Obama to win, he must be ready to attack, attack, refute, reject, attack and respond to Romney’s efforts to co-opt the debate with steely rejection.

    Black man or not, perceived as angry or not, with an opponent who will say anything, your only option is to DO EVERYTHING.


    • ourfriendsinthewest says :

      Thank you for your interesting comment. In the light of the debate, how do you think Obama did on Tuesday?

      • mumlawyerlettered2themax says :

        He was good. He responded in the same manner that Kennedy did when he debated Romney in MA. However, for the foreign policy debate, I hope he stays aggressive. As someone who has watched Romney for years, I am expecting attacks and a pivot to Obama’s so called failed economic policies even though the economy is improving. In MA, Romney always attacked, mocked, lied, and he did all this with vigor and faked sincerity. He stinks. Obama had better be prepared.

        My current issue is polls–and I hate conspiracy theories. But read me out on this one. For a research paper in one of my graduate courses in Law, I sought to use Gallup polls for research paper that would make a case for treating employees like humans, and not treating them as workplace automatons.

        Of all the polls I used, Gallup was consistently pro employers. It was unreliable and skewed, and I ended up using it to distinguish the more valid studies. And all the data from those other studies contradicted Gallup. My issue is why the Obama folks did not point this out BEFORE Gallup distributed their outlier polls giving Romney an unrealistic 7pt lead, intended, I would imagine to demoralize Obama voters.

        I hope I responded to your response clearly. I am a registered Republican but also an informed one, so I will NOT be voting for Romney. I support most of Obama policies and believe he should be re-elected to continue his work. Moreover, in the case of Romney in MA, Romney wrecked our economy. Yes, strangely, he has re-written that history, but when investigated, it reveals an INEPT Romney who did not transfer his Venture Capitalist Skills to jobs.

        I will be voting for Obama, but will also be voting against Romney because he was disengaged from us even though he was our governor, he mocked us, and was out of the State for most of his tenure in MA, chilling in Utah and campaigning for president..

        Americans are WOEFULLY uninformed, and if most people bothered to look into Romney’s near demolition of our economy in MA, and if they look at his current plans, they would NOT be voting for him.

        Romney is a rich entitled plutocrat who thinks he deserves the presidency to RULE over the serfs i.e. Middle class and poor Americans. He is ambitious but WRONG for America.


    • ourfriendsinthewest says :

      The poll issue is certainly an interesting one. My stance on Gallup is not that they produce intentionally skewed results or manufacture their numbers, but rather that their methodology is inherently flawed. Nate Silver of the New York Times’ 538 blog has written a detailed post on this which is certainly worth a read. The link is below:


      I don’t believe this means that we should completely disregard Gallup, however, just that we should take its findings within the context of the other polling companies. As for your contention that the Obama campaign should have pointed out Gallup’s irregularities, I’m afraid I disagree. When the Republicans claimed that the polls in general were skewed in favour of the President, this made them appear conspiracy-fuelled, bitter and paranoid. Ultimately, it seemed desperate. And desperate is not an image that President Obama wants to project at the moment.

      I find it very interesting that you are a registered Republican voting for Obama. You have provided a viewpoint that I rarely see, so for that I thank you.

      • mumlawyerlettered2themax says :


        Well, I have another scoop. If you recall, Romney has been stating lately that since he became pro life, he has always supported exceptions in the cases of Rape, incest and the life of the mother. This interview debunks that claim. HE LIED.

        ROMNEY STATES UNEQUIVOCALLY in this interview THAT HE WANTS ROE v. WADE overturned, and doctors to face criminal penalties for abortions. He also affirmed that he supports the extreme positions of the Republican party platform on women’s reproductive rights. Women should know about this interview!!!!!

        There is not much time, and this is another scoop I am trying to get broadcast on a national level. I hope someone can get this to the key News organizations SOON!! On my blog, I have two other interesting videos on Romney. I have also provided the link below. Cheers yawl!


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