The President Obama who strode the debate stage Tuesday night banished the image of the dull and listless performer who almost single-handedly ushered Mitt Romney back into competition the last time the two met.
Combative and eager to confront his rival at every turn, Obama quickly dispensed with one of the big questions hanging over his candidacy: whether he cared enough to win.
By the end of Tuesday’s debate, it was obvious this highly competitive president very much wants a second term and, more, wants to win it decisively.
He took after Romney on his business record and the low rate he paid in income taxes; his personal investments and campaign promises; and repeatedly pointed out inconsistencies between Romney’s stances as a deeply conservative presidential candidate and the positions he held as a moderate Massachusetts governor.
In that sense, Obama’s showing should reenergize his campaign and stoke the enthusiasm of Democrats who were despondent after the candidates’ first debate in Denver, as well as that of volunteers who may well have asked why they should give their all when Obama didn’t seem willing to do so.
And yet for the second time in as many outings, the president offered little in the way of explaining what a second Obama term might offer. That left Romney a considerable opening heading into the final stretch of the campaign, including a last debate next Monday in the pivotal state of Florida.
If voters want change after the last few economically difficult years, Romney promised it in a way Obama either would not or could not: “We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through,” he said in closing.
Seizing on his advantage as the challenger, Romney spent much of the 90-minute session reeling off grim statistics — the president is a fine orator, he needled at one point, but there is a now a four-year record to examine — and relentlessly portraying Obama as a failure: on the jobs front, on foreign policy, and on managing the federal budget and reducing the nation’s debt.
The best Obama could manage was to suggest that things would be worse if Romney took over. Several times he tied Romney to former President George W. Bush, saying at one point: “In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy.”
Entering Tuesday night’s debate, the race was in a far different place than two weeks ago, and not just because Romney, after months of flailing, seemed to have taken control.
The economy, long a millstone around the president’s neck, has been showing signs of renewed vigor, such that the Obama campaign started airing a Reaganesque ad suggesting that if it’s not quite morning in America, the sun was at least peeking over the horizon.
But after the first debate, the big danger to Obama was sudden doubts about the president himself.
Even more than substance, debates are about style: tone, assertiveness and a sense of leadership conveyed through who best commands the stage.
Obama’s challenge at the town-hall-style debate was to engage Romney, something he failed to do much in their first debate and seemed eager to remedy Tuesday — to the point where he often ran roughshod over the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, and ignored the audience to speak directly to his opponent.
Romney, often awkward in such close encounters with voters, needed to connect in a way he has rarely managed in his role as a technocratic Mr. Fix-It and a candidate who often comes across more plastic than passionate.
Though the governor spoke eloquently at times, about such matters as his personal faith and the role immigrants have played in America, he seemed to fall short of that goal, in part because he spent so much time responding to the president. And while forceful, he sometimes came across as petulant, particularly when he quibbled with Crowley over the rules.
The format — with uncommitted voters asking most of the questions — was supposed to tamp down the more aggressive instincts of the two men, but did little of the sort.
The two sometimes stood almost toe-to-toe, talking over each other. At different points, Crowley commanded both to return to their respective stools and sit down.
Romney started crisply, displaying the same authority he brought to the stage in Denver. When a young man opened the debate by asking about his own dim job prospects, he delivered a succinct answer. “More debt and less jobs,” Romney said, summing up the Obama record as he sees it. “I’m going to change that.”
But as the night wore on, Romney seemed increasingly irritated at Obama’s aggressiveness, particularly regarding his business record. At one point, he ignored the question put to him to respond to an attack Obama had made much earlier in the debate regarding his investments in China.
Obama, in contrast to Denver, seemed to grow more animated and engaged once he and Romney began to square off. The president seemed particularly intent on making his case to voters who are crucial to his reelection hopes. He repeatedly cited Romney’s pledge to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, noted that the first bill he signed as president was legislation making it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination, and even brought up Big Bird and Romney’s vow to halt funding for the Public Broadcasting System.
“Every women should have access to contraception,” Romney said when finally given a chance to speak up, rejecting the president’s assertion that Romney would leave the matter to “bureaucrats in Washington.”
The first debate significantly altered the race; the GOP challenger not only salvaged his campaign but seized the momentum in the contest and rallied his dispirited party. Overnight, Republicans who were ready to give up on the former Massachusetts governor grew convinced he not only had a shot at winning but a good one.
Still, Obama enjoys structural advantages having nothing to do with his performance on the debate stage, starting with incumbency and, not least, a number of ways to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Romney, unless he unexpectedly cracks the contest wide open in the next three weeks, is looking at a much narrower path with little margin for error.
Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, put it bluntly ahead of Tuesday night’s debate. “The president can’t afford a second performance like the first one,” he said, speaking for many in his party.
Obama avoided a repeat and, in doing so, seemed to ensure the race would remain close and hard-fought ahead of next Monday’s final meeting, and probably all the way to Nov. 6.