A feisty, articulate and confident President Obama, who went missing two weeks ago, returned to the stage Tuesday in his second debate with Mitt Romney. It was a performance likely to halt the momentum the Republican has enjoyed since their last encounter and to set up an extremely close finish in the race for the White House.
The challenger seemed a bit off his game, in part because he was fielding questions about social policies — such as gun control, women’s rights and immigration — that put the president on his most comfortable ground. But Romney made no huge missteps that are likely to make a huge difference in a contest in which the men have been in a virtual dead heat for months.
Obama charged out of his seat at the first question and took the offensive, rattling off achievements from his first term, so eager to get going that he didn’t issue the standard thanks to moderator Candy Crowley, his opponent or the audience.
The debate at Hofstra University in New York also featured some of the most provocative theater of the campaign — as Romney and Obama both rose from their chairs on an early question about gas prices, and the Republican moved uncomfortably close (by staid debate standards) to the president. Obama mostly looked away during the incursion, before returning to his seat.
The diffident and distracted president of the first debate was replaced by an Obama who repeatedly challenged Romney with the refrain, “That’s just not true.” Romney’s challenge to Obama, when his turns came, was for the president to own up to failures that the challenger said have put millions out of work and “crushed” the middle class with stagnant take-home pay.
Obama repeatedly depicted Romney as someone who looked out for the upper class. “Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan,” the president said. “And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.... You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less.”
Romney countered that the public had to merely look at the nation’s finances under Obama to see that the president wasn’t up to leading America to more prosperous ground. “We’ve gone from $10 trillion of national debt to $16 trillion of national debt,” Romney said, before referring to his history as governor of Massachusetts and as leader of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. “If the president were reelected, we’d go to almost $20 trillion of national debt. This puts us on a road to Greece. I know what it takes to balance budgets. I’ve done it my entire life.”
The wide-ranging debate, with no boundaries on topics and questions posed by a “town hall” audience, gave Obama the chance to raise many issues that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get to in Debate No. 1 in Denver. In his first answer, he noted his bailout of the auto industry — a move opposed by Romney. Obama had failed to raise the auto industry bailout, or the jobs it saved, in the first debate, despite its high popularity in battleground states, such as Ohio and Michigan.
Romney stuck with his practice of repeatedly turning to the issue of job creation. “I understand how hard it is to start a small business,” he told a home television audience that probably numbered 60 million or more. “That’s why everything I’ll do is designed to help small businesses grow and add jobs. I want to keep their taxes down on small business. I want regulators to see their job as encouraging small enterprise, not crushing it.”
Unlike in the first debate, when he successfully talked in sweeping themes, Romney got bogged down in arcana on several questions Tuesday night. He went to some pains to explain the bankruptcies he supported for the auto industry and how they eventually would have accomplished the same reconfiguration of a troubled industry as the Obama-backed bailout. He also went into the weeds on extraction of fuel. But the details were probably confusing to most voters. He returned to stronger ground, on the energy issue, when he told the story of meeting with coal workers who said they were afraid of losing their jobs.
But the discussion of coal also presented one of several openings for Obama to challenge Romney on inconsistencies. “When you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down,” Obama declared with a smile. “And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.”
Romney also invited trouble for himself a couple of times when he addressed questions to Obama and then — when Obama rose to respond — tried to shut the president down. On the feisty exchange over gas prices, Obama rose once more to defend himself, only to have a seemingly exasperated Romney gripe, “You will get your chance in a moment.”
Obama benefited from some questions from the town hall audience that seemed like they could have been drawn by a Democratic political consultant. Two in particular: How Romney differed from President George W. Bush and how he felt about fair pay for women.
But even when the ground seemed fertile for Romney, he didn’t score as he could have. Panelist Kerry Ladakh, for instance, had a tough question for Obama about why more security hadn’t been provided for the Americans who were killed at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Romney asserted that the president had denied the attack was an act of terror, but Obama denied that and then got a hand from moderator Crowley of CNN, who confirmed that Obama had referred to “terror.” The president used those words in remarks in the White House Rose Garden a day after the attack. That misstep distracted from a foreign policy mess, with four dead and plenty of legitimate questions about lack of American preparation, that should have put Obama on the defensive. On social media sites, Republicans immediately signaled their dismay.
By the end, when a panelist asked each man to describe the biggest misconception about them, Obama seemed deep in his comfort zone. Romney already seemed resigned to merely surviving to fight another day, not the near knockout he had scored in Denver. The principal difference in Debate No. 2 was that the Republican had to square off with an opponent who punched back.
PHOTOS: Memorable presidential debate momentsObama said the main misconception about him was that he didn’t understand free enterprise and that he didn’t want businesses to thrive. “I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded,” Obama said. “But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules.”
That probably went over well with the audience. But Obama also went on to raise Romney’s ham-handed comment (from an earlier hidden video) about the “victim” 47% of Americans who would not take responsibility for their lives. The hard shot satisfied Democrats, no doubt. But by the time the punch was delivered, Romney had been pretty well subdued.
He had already given his final answer, and it was neat and eloquent summation of his world view. “My passion probably flows from the fact that I believe in God. And I believe we’re all children of the same God,” Romney said. “I believe we have a responsibility to care for one another.”
The challenger had hit the right note. But Romney supporters had to wonder how many undecided voters were still watching at the end of a long, long evening for their contender.
MORE COMMENTARY FROM JAMES RAINEY: