President Obama bounced back in Tuesday's presidential debate with a focused and forceful presentation nothing like his neurasthenic performance in his first encounter with Mitt Romney. That's obviously a relief for Obama partisans, but the president's articulate defense of his own policies and his detailed dissection of his opponent's also served the electorate in general by bringing sharply into focus the fundamental differences between the candidates.
Obama was most effective in a task that he fumbled badly in the first debate: challenging the Republican candidate's insistence that he can achieve across-the-board cuts in tax rates without aggravating the federal deficit or depriving middle-income Americans of tax breaks they have come to rely on. Romney insisted that under his (still sketchy) plan, wealthy taxpayers would continue to pay as much as they do now because he will close loopholes, and that middle-income taxpayers would still have access to a generous basket of deductions.
But Obama, noting that Romney favors defense spending that the military doesn't even want as well as a continuation of tax cuts for the wealthy, did not yield the point. "The math doesn't add up," he said. Until Romney provides more details, that indictment stands. (Obama was less forthcoming about how he would reduce deficits without further taxing the middle class.)
Obama disputed Romney's recent move to the center on immigration and defended his own commitment to the development of alternative energy sources (without, however, even mentioning climate change). He offered a muscular defense of government intervention in the economy, even as he rhapsodized about the virtues of the free market. And, yes, he finally reminded the audience of Romney's closed-door dismissal of the supposedly un-self-reliant 47%.
A question about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, prompted Romney to recycle the accusation that the Obama administration deliberately misled the nation about the nature of the attack and whether it had been an organized act of terrorism. An indignant Obama shamed Romney for suggesting that he would play politics or prevaricate about such a tragic event. Romney's related argument that the attack was a metaphor for a failed foreign policy was so obviously opportunistic that no reply was necessary.
Despite the president's rebound, Romney ably reiterated his strongest argument: that Obama's promises — of deficit reduction, entitlement reform, robust job growth and immigration legislation — have not come to pass. Romney said reelecting Obama would mean more of the same.
That argument still poses a threat to Obama's reelection. But the president is back in the game, defending his accomplishments and homing in on the damage he says his opponent's policies could cause to women, the poor and a struggling middle class.