The students in Mr. Dingledine’s class readied themselves for the initial vote. It was a Friday morning in November at Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and there was a motion on the table: “President Obama will be reelected president one year from now.” Four students had prepared themselves to argue for the motion, and four against.
Out of 16 students who made up the audience, six believed Obama would get reelected. Ten did not. There were muffled cries of “Yesss!” from the opposing team, clearly with the advantage going into the showdown.
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The first two speakers allowed a cordial handshake, and then a boy named Archie started the arguments for the supporters. The crux of his team’s position was this. “He will get elected, because most of his promises he kept,” Archie said. “Things take time, so all the promises he didn’t make, he can fix them.”
(This is impressively close to the argument that Obama himself is making. “As President Obama took office, his economic program both addressed the immediate crisis and laid the foundation for a U.S. economy that can out-innovate and out-build the world,” reads his campaign website. “But there’s more work to do.”)
A few of the arguments, including the opener, for the opposing side sounded awfully wonky. (Keywords: offshore drilling, auto bailouts.) But a boy named Jacob laid out a unique offense, cleverly sidestepping squabbles about what Obama has or hasn’t achieved. “I’m not trying to put Obama down or anything. He’s a really great president,” Jacob said. “But that doesn’t really matter. He could be the best president in the world. But if people don’t think he’s the best, he won’t get elected, because people won’t vote for him.”
The first rebuttal for the supporters was made by a skinny young boy named Akiri. He stuttered, ever so endearingly, as he (inadvertently) articulated the essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. “I think that some people are really stubborn,” he said, “because they think the government is telling them what to do. And a lot people don’t really like that. But [the government is] trying to ensure for their safety.”
Akiri then moved on to an argument that TIME’s own Joe Klein has been making for the last year. “There was an increase in jobs just this morning. And I heard Jacob [another student] say, ‘Well, what if somebody doesn’t read that stuff?’ But Obama, if he’s smart, he’s going to put that in his report.” For his part, Klein has said Obama’s failure to communicate his successes to the American people has been tantamount to “political malpractice.”
Daniella took the stage supporting Obama, and did what many a seasoned pol would do: she blamed George W. Bush. She then articulated a fundamental argument that will drive the general election. “The economic recovery will take years to kick in, so Obama needs to be reelected to finish the job,” she said. “Because once you start something, you have to finish it. And if someone else takes his place, they might make it worse.” She actually used the words economic recovery. Twenty-year-olds out there, get ready for Daniella to be your boss.
At one point, the debate was sidetracked into heated discussion about the merits of school lunches, specifically those that First Lady Michelle Obama has pushed for in schools. “She is helping the lunches by giving all of us healthy food,” Akiri said, giving it a go for the pro-Obama camp. “It doesn’t really look that good, but she’s trying.” The class still seemed to be with the opposing side.
Beyond Brussels sprouts, they traded the similar barbs. Obama has done a lot of good and getting out of recession takes time, the supporting team would say. Even if that’s true, people don’t feel that way, the opposing team would rebut, and public sentiment matters more than facts. The supporters said Obama ended the war in Iraq. The other side said that yes, he has had success abroad, but only a small percentage of Americans actually care (i.e. they broke down Joe Klein’s column in this week’s edition of TIME). “Obama ran on a platform of change,” said a boy named Casey, “but many view his policies as business-as-usual.”
Eventually arguments came to a close, and it was time for the final vote. One boy, displaying his most excellent grasp of democratic principles, requested that they all vote with their heads down, so people wouldn’t just copy their friends. Mr. Dingledine directed all heads to be put on desks and started the tally.
A count for both sides was made, and Mr. Dingledine marked the results on the dry erase board at the front of the class. “We have the final vote. Everyone heads up,” he says. “According to this class, Barack Obama will be elected next year!” Cue sounds of pitiful angst and heartfelt cheers. “We’ll see,” he cautioned, “what happens in 12 months time.”