After a devastating drubbing in the first debate at the hands of an ultra-aggressive Mitt Romney, Barack Obama needed a strong debate performance (1) to reassure and reenergize his base and (2) to stop the bleeding among undecided voters and independents, who are fleeing in droves to Romney. I believe Obama accomplished the first objective, but probably not the second.
Obama Wakes Up
Obama was widely criticized after the first debate for being far too passive, even lethargic. His performance discouraged and depressed the Democratic base, which hoped that a strong debate performance would put Romney away for good. Romney’s instant aggressiveness, with the help of a non-existent moderator, overwhelmed Obama within the first five minutes, and he was never able to fully recover. A different Obama showed up in debate two. He was passionate about the issues, he engaged and connected with the audience, and he was very confident in his stated positions. In short, he looked and sounded Presidential, which was not the case in the first debate. It only took Obama a couple of minutes to unleash his inner attack-dog with one of the best (if inaccurate) lines of the night, stating that Romney only has a one-point plan “to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” After that moment, Obama never looked back, and as Obama woke up, so did the Democratic base.
Romney Stands his Ground
It was clear that Obama planned to change his strategy for the second debate, one, because a repeat performance would have been shattering, and two, because his own campaign team said as much. So, the emergence of “attack-Obama” was no surprise, and Romney was largely ready. Although the town hall debate format was not conducive to offering rebuttals, Romney managed to effectively rebut most of Obama’s attacks, even if it meant butting heads with a more intrusive moderator. More on that in a second. Romney’s points were clear and his tone even – both consistent from the first debate. He had a couple of slip-ups, which I will discuss momentarily, but overall it was a strong performance that matched well with Obama’s.
Best and Worst Moments
About midway through the debate, Romney had an opportunity to discuss Obama’s record, and he did it in a way that was crushing to the President, calmly and systematically listing all of the failed promises of the last four years: job growth, immigration reform, deficit reduction, etc. Romney’s high point culminated in his best line of the night, that, “[i]f you were to elect President Obama…you’re going to get a repeat of the last four years. The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a President who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again.” Romney’s low point was misstating a fact about Obama’s response to the Benghazi consulate attack. Obama did in fact refer to “acts of terror” in a Rose Garden press conference the next day, which Romney had denied occurred. Although Romney may have been correct about the administration’s overall response to the attack as being vague and misleading, that one factual misstatement was an unfortunate unforced error in an otherwise good debate performance. Oh, and then there was the “binders full of women” statement. Good grief. Those words need never be spoken again, Mr. Romney.
Obama’s best moment came in response to Romney’s critique of the administration’s response to the Benghazi consulate attack. After Romney criticized the seemingly slow, meandering response, and implied that Obama would rather attend a campaign rally in Las Vegas than deal with the issue, Obama swung back hard, stating that he took personal offense to Romney politicizing the issue, and recounting his time spent with the mourning families. It was a scathing response from Obama – clearly rehearsed and probably focus-grouped – but very, very effective. This is the moment in the debate everyone will remember. Obama managed to take the high ground and look Presidential at the same time – a double win, unfortunately. In contrast, Obama had two low points, in my estimation. First, he conspicuously avoided responding to Romney’s Fast and Furious allegations, leaving the impression that he had no response. Second, he chided Romney for investing in Chinese companies, when in fact Obama does the same thing. When Romney called him on it, Obama’s response that his pension “isn’t as big as” Romney’s seemed childish and petty.
In my opinion, a good moderator keeps order if things get unruly, but otherwise remains in the background. Like a good baseball umpire, a good moderator makes his or her presence known without influencing the outcome of the game. A good moderator creates an environment where both candidates have equal opportunity to present and rebut arguments. Candy Crowley was not a good moderator.
First, Obama was allotted 9% more time to speak than Romney. That’s about four minutes, the equivalent of two full debate answers. Set a timer for four minutes and sit there in silence as it counts down. Four minutes is a long time. On top of that, Obama got the last word in the debate – very important. In the first three debates all-totaled, Democrats have been given over eight minutes more speaking time than Republicans. Second, Crowley cut Romney off mid-sentence during his comments about the Fast and Furious program, and told Romney to sit down. Obama was never given this same rude treatment. In fact, Romney was interrupted by Crowley 28 times to Obama’s 9 – unconscionable, and clearly unfair. Third, Crowley fact-checked Romney on the spot regarding whether or not Obama called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror.” Regardless of what Obama said (and there is a very good argument he was making a general statement about terror, in which case Crowley was factually wrong), it was not her place to correct Romney, even if Obama was cueing her to make the correction (which Crowley admits happened). This was an arguable point that should have been argued between the two candidates. Instead, Crowley became a third debater, rather than a good moderator.
Both candidates had good debates, despite a substandard moderator and a debate format that did not seem as conducive to giving the kind of substantive answers I would like to see. If I had to grade the candidates, I would give Obama a B and Romney a B-, essentially a draw. I only give Obama the slight edge because he was so much improved from the first debate. If I may use a baseball metaphor, in game one Romney won 13-0, hitting two grand slams and several doubles, and pitching a shutout. In game two, Obama won a 2-1 pitcher’s duel, scoring the go-ahead run on a controversial call by the umpire. The third debate, next week in Florida focusing on foreign policy, will effectively serve as a game three tie-breaker.
Now, if you read my essay about the first debate, you will see that I made a prediction about the media’s response should Obama improve. I said that they would construct a “comeback kid” narrative and run with that storyline until the third debate. The media is so predictable, and that is exactly what is happening. Today’s NBCnews.com headline: “As Romney Stumbles, Obama Rumbles.” New York Times: “For the President, Punch After Punch.” The one surprising headline is from none other than NPR: “Stronger Showing at Hofstra, but Ghost of Denver Still Haunts Obama.”
NPR gets it right, I think. Obama was better, which helps with his base, but I’m not sure that his performance was good enough to blunt Romney’s momentum with independents and undecided voters. At this point in the race, the economy is still the number-one issue for most Americans. Therefore, in perhaps the most telling post-debate poll, although CBS News showed Obama winning the overall debate 37%-30% among uncommitted voters, Romney walloped the President 65%-34% in the most important area – the economy. These poll results should be very encouraging to Romney supporters. Overall, the race remains too close to call, but if the election was held today I would give a paper-thin edge to Romney.