After ceding round one to Mitt Romney, President Obama comes out swinging in round two.
After a totally and completely lackluster performance two weeks ago in Denver, Barack Obama roared back in the second presidential debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The president who seemed annoyed and disengaged two weeks ago was nowhere to be found. The challenger who was so supremely confident and in control two weeks ago got a taste of his own medicine, and was knocked down a few pegs for the privilege.
The town hall format at Hofstra University clearly favored the President, who is much more at ease among the common folk than is the animatronic Republican. Obama clearly was able to relate to the audience much more comfortably than Romney.
On style, Obama was feisty, combative, and determined to not let Romney get away with the blatant falsehoods he told repeatedly in their first encounter. The President was aggressive and assertive, but not too aggressive. Romney tried to push back, but often came across as more of a bully than a Commander in Chief. And the dismissiveness with which he treated a sitting President of the United States will surely go over well with the Republican base, but not so much with undecided voters who Romney must win over in order to win the presidency.
On substance, while most debate analysts have concluded that although Obama clearly won the debate but that Romney got the better of the exchanges on the economy, I disagree. Romney had no clear answers for how to grow the economy. He kept repeating over and over a very John McCain-esque “I know how to do it, I’ll get it done” meme over and over again without ever telling the audience how he’ll do it. And when moderator Candy Crowley challenged Romney on “what if” the math on his tax plan doesn’t add up, Romney replied “well of course it adds up,” saying that he was a businessman for his entire life and that was his job, so we should just trust him. He never once provided any concrete evidence that would contradict the myriad of studies that demonstrably show that his tax plan most definitively does not add up.
Romney still outright refused to identify any loopholes he would close or tax credits he would take away that could possibly make his plan revenue neutral as he insists. His is an argument that even former Reagan administration officials define as nothing more than flim-flam.
Obama, on the other hand, was very specific about the things he has done as president to spur economic growth. He was very specific on the tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses that he has implemented. He made clear that 97% of the small businesses in this country benefitted directly from those tax cuts, contrary to the assertion of right wing pundits and his opponent.
On energy, Romney told us that he would make America energy independent within eight years. And then later he told the audience he’d make America energy independent within five years. But he never articulated a plan to do it, implying the same old “Drill baby drill” mantra of 2008. He criticized the president for reducing oil production on public lands. “That’s not true, Governor,” Obama retorted. “Here’s what happened. You had a whole bunch of oil companies who had leases on public lands that they weren’t using. So what we said was you can’t just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it. And so what we did was take away those leases. And we are now reletting them so that we can actually make a profit.”
Romney himself mentioned that domestic oil production is up, but that refining capacity in this country is sorely lacking and unable to keep up with the production level. He never said how he would make up that difference in those eight years (or is it five? I don’t think even he knows). It was a completely incoherent misstatement.
Not that Obama didn’t have his weak moments. He could not (or would not?) directly answer a question posed about what he can do to bring gas prices down. He talked eloquently about energy policy and what he wants to do long term as far as investments in renewable energy and his administrations encouragement of the expansion of natural gas drilling. But he never answered the question of what, if anything, he can do to bring skyrocketing gas prices down. The truth is that as of now there really is nothing a president can do—any president. Demand is up worldwide, he noted, but that’s not the only thing driving the price at the pump.
It’s no secret that gas prices are up because oil prices are up. And oil prices are up because speculators in the market are outbidding themselves for crude oil, driving the price of a barrel of oil well past the $100 mark. What the president could have suggested is placing regulations on the virtually unregulated commodities market, ensuring that one or two investors can no longer drive the price of oil rocketing past the $120 mark as it did in the late stages of the Bush administration. That surely would have been described as an “attack on the free market” by partisan Republicans, but it’s an issue that needs to be discussed more often and more openly. It was a missed opportunity for Obama.
One thing Obama did do very effectively is turn the issue of contraception into a women’s economic issue. Romney did a nice job of ducking and dodging his own record and his party’s record on the subject, saying that he favors access to contraceptive care for everyone. But he had no answer when Obama hit him with his statement that he intended to defund Planned Parenthood, which plays a key role nationwide on not only contraception but in women’s health in general, including cancer screenings, and Romney couldn’t run away from his party’s very recent record opposing access to contraception. Obama clearly scored big on women’s health care and economic issues, putting distance between himself and the challenger and is sure to reverse the tide of women voters who suddenly turned in favor of Romney two weeks ago.
As he did two weeks ago, Romney stood tall and tried to be forceful. And although he tried to not be overbearing, he often came across as bullying and pushy. And whiny. And he clearly did not like being challenged; the president’s sharpness and combativeness clearly rattled Romney. The Republican seemed taken aback that anyone would challenge his anointed CEO status. After all, no one challenges the company’s CEO.
The most talked about exchange was the most fiery one: The exchange on Libya and the events of this past September 11th. Romney blatantly flubbed the facts and was called on it not only by the president but by debate moderator Candy Crowley. He accused the president and his team of deliberately misleading and politicizing the American public about the events in Benghazi, which drew and intense and direct rebuke from the president:
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.
In the closing moments came the unnecessary knockout punch, the punch that Democrats lamented didn’t come in the first debate:
I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.
Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income.
Another thing was clear in this debate: These two men absolutely do not like each other, nor do they respect one another. Which is a dangerous proposition for Romney: Showing such contempt for a sitting president could very well do more damage than good, although it’s sure to rile up a contemptible Republican base that has no respect for anyone across the aisle to begin with.
Next week the two men square off again in a debate on foreign policy. It’s a subject matter that
Romney has demonstrated himself to be completely and totally out of his element, and it’s a debate where Obama should wipe the floor with the Republican.
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