By Eugene Robinson
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—Not a close call. President Obama won the second presidential debate as clearly and decisively as he lost the first. For anyone who disagrees, three simple words: “Please proceed, Governor.”
This icy invitation to Mitt Romney came amid an exchange about the killings of State Department officials in Libya. Obama noted that in his initial Rose Garden remarks, he classified the attack as an act of terror. Romney, perhaps misinformed by the right-wing propaganda machine, tried to insist that the president waited weeks to call the incident terrorism. “Get the transcript,” Obama said.
Moderator Candy Crowley stepped in and noted that Obama was correct. (Indeed, according to the transcript, Obama classified the attack as among “acts of terror” that would not deter or deflect U.S. foreign policy.) Having embarrassed himself, Romney had the good sense to move on.
It was a moment that encapsulated what Obama accomplished Tuesday night: He punched hard, and he punched with facts.
In these debates, superficialities can be important. Downcast and mopey in the first encounter, this time Obama was sharp and combative throughout. He went after Romney directly and personally; I lost track of the number of times Obama charged that some Romney assertion or another was flatly untrue. He quoted Romney’s past statements that directly contradict what Romney is saying now. All evening, he was in Romney’s face.
It’s not that Romney had an awful night, and certainly not that he was some kind of shrinking violet. But in the first debate, Obama’s passivity allowed Romney to interrupt, interject, and generally control the flow of the conversation in a way that seemed merely forceful, not obnoxious. Tuesday night, with Obama playing offense, Romney had to dial his own performance up a notch. At times he seemed a little cranky, a little flustered.
The town hall format—and Crowley’s firm hand—ensured that the debate covered quite a lot of ground. Obama got to fight on favorable political terrain. A question about equal pay for women, for example, allowed him to question Romney’s position on women’s reproductive rights and whether health insurance should have to pay for contraception. A question about immigration let Obama note that Romney has vowed to veto the DREAM act for those brought here without papers as children.
Allowing Obama to make direct appeals to women and Latinos was probably not in the Romney game plan.
Romney did get to make his pitch, however. He made clear that the central theme of his candidacy is a promise to create jobs. Given the state of the economy, it would be stunning if people didn’t at least give him a hearing.
“I understand that I can get this country on track again,” Romney said. “We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through. We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job. If I become president, I’ll get America working again.”
Obama sought to demonstrate that Romney’s bold words are backed up by nonsensical policies. He wanted to make Romney sound more like a salesman than a statesman. We won’t know until new polls come in whether he succeeded.
But all in all, not Romney’s best outing. Responding to the final question, he said he cared for “100 percent of the American people.” He never should have opened that door, because it invited Obama to give his best speech of the evening:
“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. And I want to fight for them.”
Romney won’t get to respond until the final debate on Monday. The tiebreaker.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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