The 9 Debate Questions We Want to Hear

Win McNamee/Getty Images News
Win McNamee/Getty Images News

(The Root) — So far we've heard the presidential and vice presidential candidates asked questions about jobs, Libya and abortion. But as I've written about, we haven't heard them asked questions about how they plan to improve the lives of the poor or people of color.


Those are just some of the subjects that have been overlooked in the debates so far. There are many. So below are a few of the questions that many of us watching wish someone would ask the candidates, even though it's a long shot that anyone actually will.

1. Why do you actually want to be president?

This may seem like an easy question for a presidential candidate, but were Sen. Ted Kennedy still alive, he would tell you that it's not. In one of the more embarrassing moments of his career, a reporter asked him why he wanted to be president and Kennedy gave a long, rambling answer that made it clear he didn't really have a good answer — or reason. Though he continued an illustrious career in the Senate, that moment is one of a handful credited with dashing his presidential hopes.


After his unenthusiastic, disappointing and seemingly disconnected performance in the first presidential debate, President Obama has some Americans wondering if he still wants to be president. Giving a compelling response to the question "Why do you still want to be president?" could possibly go a long way toward convincing voters that he still does and deserves another chance.

But both President Obama and Gov. Romney, like Sen. Kennedy, already have more money and power than the average person, so many of us would love to hear why they feel they absolutely need the title of "president." If they couldn't tell us that in one sentence, that would tell us a lot about them — and not necessarily anything good.

2. Do you have any close friends of a different race?

Yes, this is controversial. But considering that there is an affirmative action case before the Supreme Court that could affect the racial makeup of higher education, and subsequently employment, for years to come, understanding a candidate's personal experience with racial diversity in his personal life would provide some relevant insight into his worldview and, possibly, what will shape his policies.


3. Affirmative action in higher education is currently being reconsidered before the Supreme Court. Do you support affirmative action in any form, and do you believe legacy admissions should benefit children of privilege like your own?

Though they are of different races, Romney and Obama have something in common: They both attended Ivy league universities, and they have children who have and will continue to benefit from the privilege that their economic status and last names provide. Therefore, this question would provide insight not only into their administration's policies but also into their perspectives on privilege.


4. Can you identify the FAFSA form?

If you just asked, "What's an FAFSA form?" congratulations on two accounts: 1) for obviously not having any student-loan debt and 2) for having something in common with most of our federal elected officials. Solving the student-loan crisis is one of the hottest political issues of this election cycle and, frankly, this generation.


Congress is populated with substantially more millionaires than the general population: Nearly half of all members of Congress are members of the so-called "1 percent." Romney and Obama are as well. This doesn't make them unqualified for office, but it does require them to go the extra mile to demonstrate that they can understand the struggles of those who are not members of their tax bracket. (President Obama doesn't have to try quite as hard to go the extra mile, however. He and the first lady finished paying off their student loans just eight years ago.)

One of the easiest ways I can think of to get candidates to demonstrate a true understanding of the plight of families and students struggling to finance a college education is to show them multiple forms during a debate and ask each candidate if he can identify which document is FAFSA, the form that the majority of American students must fill out to seek financial aid for college.


Better yet, let's start with an easier question: Can they even say what "FAFSA" stands for? (For the record, it's Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) I have a hard time believing that many of our recent presidential candidates — most of whom have been privileged — could answer either question, which is not only disappointing but downright disturbing.

5. If you knew that your children would end up on the receiving end of some of the attack ads your campaign has used against your opponent, would you encourage them to enter politics?


Attack ads in politics are a bit like cursing. People consider them something everyone does but no one is particularly proud of, or would ever want their kids to emulate. I therefore think phrasing a question about attack ads in the context of his children may tell you more about a candidate's true character than simply asking him whether he "stands by the ad." For the record, neither candidate (or his supporters) is innocent when it comes to playing hardball with ads. Here's an overview of a few.

6. Do you think that America is, for the most part, an equal playing field?

This is another question that could tell us a great deal about a candidate's perspective on privilege and how that perspective would ultimately shape the policies he introduces. If you think all of us start on an equal playing field, then that means you don't think you need to do anything in terms of policy to even the playing field.


7. What would you do specifically to address unemployment among black men?

Data show that most job gains last month were made among black women, while black men continue to struggle to recover from the Great Recession. A recent Princeton study found that black men remain targets of discrimination in hiring, making the recovery even harder for them. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that he believes Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place in tackling this issue because the president is a black man and faces undue scrutiny from conservatives for policies related to our community.


Well, an easy way to spread the scrutiny around would be to ask Romney and the president during the same debate what specifically they would do to aid this demographic, in light of studies showing the discrimination black men face. Such a question could be a watershed moment for presidential debates and hopefully for progress for our community.

8. If, on election night, your opponent offered to meet with you on a regular basis in a spirit of bipartisanship to discuss ideas for moving the country forward — the way many ex-presidents work together in solving issues across party lines — would you be willing to do it, regardless of which one of you wins?


Candidates pay a lot of lip service to things like "bipartisanship," but that's talk. You learn by watching what people do. For instance, John McCain (R-Ariz.) was one of the Senate's greatest champions of bipartisanship, until he lost to someone he didn't really like. But if Romney or Obama committed to working together in some way, regardless of who wins, that would tell us more about their commitment to bipartisanship than their speeches.

9. Do you think President Obama receives more criticism because of his race?

This question would be controversial. But sometimes it takes a controversial question to spark a long-overdue conversation. A Romney supporter sported a racist T-shirt at a recent Romney event. While the shirt certainly can't be considered representative of all Romney supporters, it served as a reminder that one of the reasons certain people don't like the president is his race, yet discussing that has been relegated to the back burner, as though it doesn't matter. It does.


When you have black Republicans calling the criticism of Obama by some Romney surrogates racist, that may not make the allegations true, but it does make them worthy of discussion — including by the president and his opponent.

Please feel free to weigh in with your own questions in the comments section. 

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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