Students Debate the Presidential Debates

October 18, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

Presidential Debate collageNEW: A summary of the main points made at the discussion moderated by Professor Ron Mincy and sponsored by the Social Policy Caucus, on Wednesday, October 17. (Scroll down to bottom of page.)

In the halls, elevators and common spaces at the School of Social Work, students have been registering their reactions to this year's presidential debates. The Communications Office asked several of them to share their comments with the wider CUSSW community—particularly on issues that tend to be of concern to social workers.

The three participants in our Debate on the Debates are, in order of appearance:

  • Waseem Sendi, SEA Management Fellow (2013)
  • Claude Heffron, Management Fellow (2014)
  • Rachel Kadlec, Advanced Standing and Advanced Clinical Practice (2013)

Here are some highlights from our exchanges:

The second presidential debate, between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, took place this week at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. It was structured as a "town hall" event with questions primarily coming from a pre-screened audience of undecided voters. What if anything did you learn from this debate about the candidates and their policies?

WASEEM SENDI: Governments try to put policy into pratice, but this debate did the opposite for me—it connected my social work practice to government policy. For my coursework at CUSSW, I've just finished doing an evaluation of a program for social workers in hospitals. As I listened to President Obama discuss his health care reforms— explaining that he was trying to introduce higher quality health services while lowering the overall costs of health care—I realized that the program I'd been evaluating was put in place because of those reforms. The program tries to reduce unnecessary readmissions by penalizing hospitals for each unplanned readmission 30 days post-discharge. To avoid these penalties, social workers in hospitals must strive to improve the health outcomes of patients by providing intensive case management for the highest risk patients, empowering them to take control of their health care. Suddenly I was able to perceive the link between federal policy—better care, lower costs—and what I'd actually been observing in a hospital. It was absolutely inspiring, a first for me.

CLAUDE HEFFRON: Unfortunately for me, this debate provided little enlightenment on the candidates’ specific policy aims. Governor Romney focused on critiquing Obama’s record and reiterating platitudes about how his business experience will enable him to grow the American economy. President Obama is also guilty of speaking in generalities. He emphasizes his past achievements, but often fails to consistently and meaningfully address the specific agenda he will pursue in his second term. The discussion of what the candidates will accomplish was rarely supported by detailed explanations of how they will achieve this, leaving Americans to judge candidates’ characters, not their platforms.

RACHEL KADLEC: For me, the "women in binders" comment comment by Romney was very revealing. It summed up in his own words how poorly he connects with women.

Diversity competence is an important aspect of social work practice. Calling on this particular competency, do you think that President Obama has been judged by a different yardstick as America's first black president, and if so, did you see any evidence of that in this week's debate or the previous one?

CLAUDE HEFFRON: Although there is no concrete proof demonstrating how Obama’s race affects how Americans judge him, I am certain that this factor influences his campaign. In this week’s debate, Obama appeared to be more authoritative than he was in the previous debate, but he was certain careful to avoid coming off as aggressive. Obama’s fear of being stereotyped as a volatile and violent black man is something that plays into how he presents himself publicly, often resulting in liberals accusing him of erring on the side of appearing dispassionate and conservatives judging him as weak.

Lastly, considering the diverse populations that will be affected by this election's most important topics (e.g., healthcare, the economy), what question(s) would you still like to see posed to the two candidates?

CLAUDE HEFFRON: A group that is rarely considered in these debates is the incarcerated population which makes up 1 percent of the American populace. The rationale behind this is largely political—because those in prison (and some with felony records) are unable to vote, politicians hardly feel the need to address the issues that impact these people. Although this group is disenfranchised, they matter and I would like to know what candidates plan to do reduce incarceration and recidivism rates as well as what they will do to continue or disrupt the increasing privatization of prisons.

RACHEL KADLEC: I would like to see more questions focusing on social issues and social services: e.g., Romney's promise to de-fund Planned Parenthood; the lack of support for teachers, social workers, etc.; and the lack of funding for aid programs and education. The question I would pose to the candidates if I had been there would have been, "Nine million Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Why are we one of the few remaining first world countries who does not allow same-sex marriage in the twenty-first century?"

* * *


From a social work perspective, CUSSW students agreed that where this debate fell short was that neither candidate mentioned low-income people and those living in poverty—most of our clients. It focused instead on the top 2 percent and the middle class.

And, although Governor Romney presented an interesting plan on dealing with the deficit and boosting the economy—lowering tax rates and supporting the middle class—many of us expressed doubts about the realistic implementation of this plan. If Romney insists on investing in war/defense, he may not be able to deliver on his tax promises. President Obama, on the other hand, is planning to cut defense spending and use the money to boost the economy and create jobs. But will his big-picture plan to invest in green, fuel-efficient and energy sustainable sources win the hearts of the struggling middle class?

Students also had strong reactions to Romney's over-the-top aggressive and self-centered interactions with the President and the female moderator and thought that his failure to acknowledge the need for gender equity in the workplace is unlikely to score him points with female voters.

* * *

The opinions expressed above are those of the individuals in question, not of the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Images: Debate logo; (left to right) Waseem Sendi, Claude Heffron, Rachel Kadlec.