By Tracy Bloom
With exactly three weeks to go, and the presidency on the line, time is running out for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to persuade voters.
The pressure is on for both candidates, but more so perhaps for Obama, who has seen his poll ratings decline since a disastrous performance in the first presidential debate.
As a result, Obama needed to rebound in his second showdown against Romney to erase the bad memories of the first. He also needed a strong performance in Tuesday night’s second presidential debate to energize the Democratic base and win over independent voters.
And he had to do it without Joe Biden’s help.
So how did Obama do?
Put it this way: Those who complained that Obama appeared lethargic, bored, uninterested, annoyed, etc. in the first debate (myself included) have zero reason to grumble now. Within the first few minutes, Obama was on the offensive; he put the pressure on Romney and he never let up.
Advisers to Obama had promised that their candidate would be more aggressive and passionate in the second debate than he had been in the first.
And he was. By miles. The president did not hold back during the town hall event in Hempstead, N.Y., coming out swinging and attacking Romney in the opening question for his stance against the auto industry bailout (“Let Detroit go bankrupt”), then calling him out for uttering a falsehood. “What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” Obama noted in a phrase he used throughout the night.
He also knocked his Republican challenger’s jobs plan. “Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan ... to make sure the folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” the president said in one of his better zingers of the evening.
By the second question, the gloves were off, with Obama accusing Romney of switching positions on coal production.
“When you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and said, this plant kills. And took great pride in shutting it down!” Obama reminded voters.
From there, the two sparred on gas prices, oil and energy policy. At one point, Romney and Obama got into a heated confrontation, with Romney getting in the president’s face over oil production and Obama not backing down. It was certainly one of the highlights of a lively and spirited debate.
After that confrontation, Obama took Romney to task for his criticism of the president’s efforts to lower gas prices.
“He said when I took office, the price of gasoline was $1.80, $1.86. Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression, as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney’s now promoting,” he said. “So, it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess.”
Romney, coming off a strong performance in the Denver debate two weeks ago, had hoped to sustain that momentum. But instead, he found himself on the defensive almost from the get-go, and even confronted debate moderator Candy Crowley at times.
At one point, he got into it with her over debate rules. “He actually got the first question. So I get the last question—last answer,” Romney said in a moment reminiscent of how he treated moderator Jim Lehrer in the first debate.
The event was helped along by the intimate town hall format that had the candidates answering questions from undecided voters in the audience selected by polling company Gallup, instead of from CNN’s Crowley.
The questions gave the candidates a chance to address crucial topics that were notably absent from the previous debates including immigration, guns and women’s issues (we briefly heard about Biden and Paul Ryan’s abortion views during the vice presidential debate, but not a peep beyond that).
With recent polls showing Romney picking up female support, it was critical for Obama to address issues of women’s rights. And he got his opportunity during a question about equal pay, attacking Romney for not supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Romney, who answered the audience member’s question first, said he learned about women’s equality when he noticed most of the applicants for Cabinet positions when he was elected governor of Massachusetts were men.
He said he then made a concerted effort to find women to serve as members of his Cabinet. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
During his response, Obama managed to bring up contraceptives, painting his birth control mandate in an economic context.
“These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues,” he said.
Obama then pounced on Romney for not supporting the mandate and for saying he wanted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making. I think that’s a mistake,” Obama said.
But matters that had been brought up in previous debates also took up some time, including the GOP nominee’s tax plan. Once again, Romney failed to provide details on it. We still don’t know, for example, what loopholes and deductions a President Romney would close in order to offset the roughly $5 trillion tax cut the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center said his plan would offer.
He also couldn’t say how his plan is mathematically possible, something Biden pointedly brought up in the vice presidential debate and Obama brought up in this one.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that,” Obama said.
The president also hit Romney for changing his position on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
“When Governor Romney stands here, after a year of campaigning, when during a Republican primary he stood on stage and said ‘I’m going to give tax cuts’ — he didn’t say tax rate cuts, he said ‘tax cuts to everybody, including the top 1 percent,’ you should believe him because that’s been his history.”
He then addressed Romney’s low tax rate. “The fact that he only has to pay 14 percent on his taxes when a lot of you are paying much higher.”
Another issue that sparked contention between the two men was Libya.
Crowley brought up Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement Monday in which she took responsibility for the security breach in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Obama said, however, that ultimately the buck stopped with him: “Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me. I’m the president, and I’m always responsible.”
But, he continued, it was “offensive” for Romney to accuse his administration of “covering up” the attack and politicizing it.
Romney accused Obama of not calling it a terrorist attack immediately after the incident, to which Obama responded that he had referred to it as an “act of terror” just one day after it happened. In fact, as Crowley confirmed (much to Romney’s chagrin), the president did indeed call it such during a speech he delivered from the Rose Garden.
Then, there was the matter that many wondered why Obama didn’t bring up during the first debate, the proverbial elephant in the room—Romney’s comment that he had written off the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes.
The “47 percent” comment didn’t come up until the end, and ironically, Romney brought it up himself when he claimed he cared about “100 percent” of Americans.
And cue Obama.
“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,” the president began. “Folks on Social Security who have worked all their lives. Veterans who have 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 tax, but don’t make enough income.”
Spotlighting that 47 percent, Obama said, “I want to fight for them and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”
It was a brilliant ending to what was, for Obama, a turnaround debate performance. If Romney was the winner in the first debate, Obama was the clear victor Tuesday night.
The candidates will have one more shot to earn your vote when they meet for their third and final debate Monday.