President Obama in Tuesday’s debate finally showed the nerve demanded in an election when most voters think the country is on the wrong track.
Think about it. The economy is flailing, the national debt is spiraling, and the Middle East is convulsing. How dare he ask for a second term? After a workmanlike speech at his nominating convention and a listless first debate against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, he dared showing confidence and even swagger while touting first-term accomplishments and delivering both expected and surprising blows to his opponent. Stick with me. I’m worth it. Him? He’s no good.
The president also got a nice boost from a handful of questioners who asked about topics he clearly relished. A young woman gave Obama the chance to talk about being raised by a single mother and hard-working grandmother and to brag that the first bill he signed makes it easier for women to seek back pay for wage discrimination. A question about illegal immigration allowed the president to light into Romney for recommending “self-deportation” and for saying he would veto legislation allowing undocumented kids to stay in this country. Romney muscled through those questions, pointing to his diverse Cabinet as governor of Massachusetts and stressing his support for legal immigration, but those topics did not give him much rope to trip up the president.
Obama got lucky, but he also showed the moxie that could help him break away from Romney in the homestretch.
Still, the debate lacked that singular moment, that one knockout punch or cringe-inducing gaffe, that could change the trajectory of a race that goes from tight to tighter and back to tight. Romney was passionate on the point that Obama’s economic policies haven’t worked, leaving undecided voters with a lot to think about over the next three weeks. Romney seemed to pick up where he left off in the first debate, projecting ease and self-assurance in the first question from a college student worried about his future.
Then the president lunged, shortly after Romney mentioned his “five-point” economic plan. He’s got a “one-point” plan, Obama shot back, and it’s to make sure the rich get to “play by a different set of rules.” That point brought Obama back to what has been the strongest Democratic line of attack throughout the campaign: Romney doesn’t care about people like you. At least twice, Obama interjected into the discussion the fact that his multimillionaire opponent pays a lower tax rate than most Americans.
Obama stayed on the attack throughout most of the 90-minute debate, despite the town-hall format that made throwing punches more challenging.
Unlike the last debate, when Obama let one opportunity after another pass him by, he grabbed fleeting moments and created favorable openings. At a time when polls show the advantage he has enjoyed among women slipping, the president dove into the gender gap, headfirst. He mentioned his daughters twice and cast Romney as an enemy to women for opposing abortion rights and Planned Parenthood funding. At least twice, he sought to associate Romney with obstructionist Republicans in Congress. “You’re the last person who’s going to get tough on China,” barked Obama, pointing to Romney’s foreign investments.
Romney, for his part, kept trying to draw the discussion back to the president’s record. When Obama ended his remarks on energy with, “That’s what we’re going to do the next four years,” Romney smoothly picked up with, “But that’s not what you’ve done the last four years.” Here was the capable chief executive who has turned profits and turned around an Olympics. “I know what it takes to balance budgets,” he said. “I’ve done it my entire life.” The usually cautious team player even got bold as he commiserated with small business owners, saying, “Our party has been focused on big business too long.”
But at other times, Romney came across as a little too eager for a fight, insisting over and over, for example, that oil drilling on public lands has decreased. He seemed to circle the president like a boxer in the ring. Romney also came across as peevish when he complained about not getting his turn to speak.
And once again, he struggled to explain how he would pay for his tax cuts without inflating the deficit.
Meanwhile, the president stayed cool. “I’m used to being interrupted,” he quipped. “Great! Looking forward to it!” he said after being told he was getting the next question.
If Obama can keep up that buoyancy over the next three weeks, he just might pull off a victory.