The second presidential debate: Obama on his game

    Let’s cut to the chase. If President Obama had performed in the first debate the way he did in last night’s second debate – rebutting Mitt Romney’s serial deceptions, and exposing Mitt as a serial chameleon with few core convictions – this race would be all but over.

    Obama was crisp, concise, confident, combative, and cutting. Romney played the same game he brought to round one, but this time he was trumped – not merely by his opponent, but also – in the key exchange on Libya – by his own embarrassing blunder. This was the moment that will be played repeatedly on TV, perhaps even on Fox News.

    It all began when a citizen asked Obama about the four American deaths in Benghazi, and moderator Candy Crowley followed up by asking Obama if the buck stops with him. Obama said yes, defended the veracity of his national security team, and then he addressed Romney: “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror. And I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families. 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.”

    Romney fixated on the Rose Garden reference, and thought he had been handed a gift: “I think it’s interesting, the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror….Is that what you’re saying? I – I – I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”

    Obama, in response: “Get the transcript.”

    The moderator, referring to Obama: “He did in fact, sir….He did call it an act of terror.”

    At which point, many of the undecided citizens in the room burst into laughter and applause.

    Finally, Romney was being smacked down for lying. It was actually his compadre, Paul Ryan, who had floated that particular lie, during the vice-presidential debate, falsely claiming that it took Obama two weeks to call the Benghazi episode an act of terror – when in fact Obama said in the Rose Garden, on the morning after: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation.” (Two days after, on the stump, Obama invoked Benghazi and said: “We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. I want people around the world to hear me. To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.”)

    Anyway, what an embarrassment for Romney, to get fact-checked by a moderator in front of roughly 60 million viewers – cue conservative attacks on Candy Crowley – but there were many other vivid moments along the Obama comeback trail. Let’s highlight a few:

    1. Early on, Romney said: “When the president took office, the price of gasoline here in Nassau County was about a buck eighty-six a gallon. Now it’s four bucks a gallon.” Mitt is quite practiced at the art of deception – reciting facts that lack all context – and his line about gasoline was typical.

    But this time, Obama quickly provided the context: “Think about what the governor just said. He said that 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 is now promoting. So it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess.”

    True that. The price of gas was low in January ’09 because consumer demand had collapsed, and that was because the Bush economy had collapsed. When Obama offered his prompt rebuttal, it was clear that Romney was in for a long night.

    2.  Also early on, Romney rhapsodized at length about coal as an energy source (translation: he badly needs Ohio, and southern Ohio is coal country). In response, Obama smacked him right between the eyes: “When I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy – and keep in mind when – Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, this plant kills, and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.”

    Romney didn’t bother to protest, because the incident was true. It was an early sign that Obama intended to map the chasm that separates the original Romney (moderate in Massachusetts) from Romney 2.0 (the severe conservative of the GOP primary season).

    3. This time, Obama was determined not to indulge Romney 3.0 (the born-again moderate of the first debate, distancing himself from Romnney 2.0). Time and again, and mindful of his need to consolidate his support among women, the president pointed out – as he had not done in round one – that Romney has spent the last two years pandering to the right-wingers in his party, hitching his star to the unpopular Republican Congress. A key Obama remark:

    “You know, when members of the Republican Congress say, we’re going to sign a no tax pledge so that we don’t ask a dime from millionaires and billionaires to reduce our deficit so we can still invest in education and helping kids go to college, (Romney) said, me too. When they said, we’re going to cut Planned Parenthood funding, he said, me too. When he said, we’re going to repeal Obamacare, first thing I’m going to do – despite the fact that it’s the same health care plan that he passed in Massachusetts and is working well – he said, me too.”

    (Romney sought to bond with women by recounting how he had appointed some to his Massachusetts cabinet, after supposedly asking for files of women – in his words, “binders of women” – but I am saving that particular debate episode for the blog tomorrow.)

    4. When Romney at one point sought to distance himself from President Bush’s disastrous tenure, Obama pointed out that, on some key issues, Romney is actually to the right of Bush. Obama’s clear aim was to shove Romney rightward, and clear the middle ground for himself. The president said:

    “George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for ‘self-deportation.’ George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. So there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy.”

    5. Mindful, also, of his need to consolidate his support among Hispanics – a key constituency in most swing states – Obama pointed out that Romney, during the primary season, had voiced his opposition to the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for the young law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants. He also repeatedly resurrected Romney’s “self-deportation” line. (During the primary season, Romney said that if we made things sufficiently miserable for undocumented immigrants, perhaps they’d just go back where they came from.)

    Romney took a stuttering stab at defending his “self-deportation” line: “Now let me mention one other thing, and that is, self-deportation says let it – let people make their own choice. What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let – make – people make their own choice.”

    Spinning self-deportation as freedom of choice? That only made things worse. Rest assured that his answer, as well as others on immigration, will play heavily on Univision and Telemundo.

    6. During his closing statement, Romney offered his spin on the infamous fat-cat fundraising video (where he had characterized 47 percent of the American people as government-addicted slackers) – even though Obama hadn’t brought up the video at all: “The president’s campaign has tried to characterize me as – as someone who – who is very different than who I am. I care about a hundred percent of the American people.”

    That pitch floated toward Obama at a speed of roughly two miles an hour – and Obama powered it over the fence. If Romney was bringing up the video, then why not remind people what Romney actually said on that video? And do it in the last moments of the debate, thus getting the last word?

    “I believe Governor Romney is a good man. He loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers 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.”

    I won’t speculate on whether Obama’s strong performance has reset the campaign. Perhaps Romney’s persistent jabs about the sluggish economy hit home with a lot of viewers. But the bottom line is that the early October narrative – about how Romney routed a sleepwalking Obama – is now dead. This time around , the president left his Ambien in the medicine cabinet. The next narrative has yet to be written.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.