If President Obama was lethargic in his first debate, last night it appeared as though he had consumed a gallon of an energy drink as he took on his Republican challenger Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. Coming off a strong debate performance by Vice President Joe Biden against the Republican vice presidential nominee Rep Paul Ryan, the President was on the spot to be more assertive in his second outing against Romney. President Obama was just that; confident, prepared and looking to take the fight to his challenger.
The debate was held on a campus where the election is stirring passion on both sides. By early evening hundreds of students had converged on the plaza outside the Hofstra student center; some taking in the live broadcasts of cable television stations, engaging in protest or simply taking in the scene. If Hofstra is an example of student activism, then students should be fully engaged come November 6. The campus was electric and the university administration deserves credit for making certain their students understood the significance of hosting a debate. Though seating in the auditorium was limited, there were several debate watch parties around campus and it was clear Hofstra students were attuned to the election.
From the outset of the debate it was clear the President was eager to make amends for his first debate performance. The first question was from a student, Jeremy Epstein, who asked what the candidates will do to make certain that young people will have a job upon graduating from college. Though debate moderator CNN’s Candy Crowley directed the first question to Mitt Romney, the President was sitting on the edge of his stool in anticipation of responding and drawing a distinction between his policies and his opponent’s ideas. It also did not take long for the President to pointedly accuse Romney of misleading voters; something that Democrats were disappointed he did not do in Denver. Early in the debate he shot back at his challenger, “that is not true.” It was not just the President’s reaction; it was the tone at which he responded to Romney. It was clear that he might have underestimated how underwhelming his demeanor was in the first debate and was determined to show a more combative side to his personality.
The three areas where Mitt Romney stumbled was his bumbling description of his tax plan, his awkward response to a question on gender-based pay inequities and Libya. The President held steady in taking on his challenger’s assertions about lowering taxes and Romney’s claim that he would not be lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Perhaps the best rejoinder offered by President Obama was “And Governor Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” After an audience member suggested the Republican candidate has not spelled out any specifics in his plan, a point raised by the President, Romney never came back to the question and failed to address specifically which deductions he would preserve and which ones he would eliminate under his plan. The starkness of the exchange was striking given that Romney has made the economy the central theme of his campaign and has touted his expertise as a businessman as qualification to run the country. At one point the President challenged Romney that if someone came to him seeking a business investment with the plan he was touting that the former Bain Capital chief would reject it. Talking directly to his opponent, President Obama said, “If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
In perhaps the most awkward moment of the campaign, the Republican candidate suggested that while governor of Massachusetts he addressed the scarcity of women in his administration, and offered workplace flexibility but clumsily remarked that he kept “binders full of women” as a way to make certain they were given opportunities. For his part, the President shared the personal stories of his mother and grandmother as examples of two women who were qualified and smart, but were denied opportunities due to their gender. He also touted his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act as his first bill as an example of his administration’s commitment to women.
Romney lost his footing during the discussion on the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya and erred in trying to politicize the tragedy. After claiming that the President had showed little concern after the attack and went on political trips following the attack, President Obama went on the offensive and angrily responded to Romney. “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. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief,” barked the President as he turned to his challenger. President Obama also got an assist from the debate moderator when Mitt Romney suggested the President had changed his story on how he responded to the embassy attack. The exchange was:
ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That’s what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: 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: Get the transcript.
Crowley then set the record straight while trying to be diplomatic in how she corrected Romney.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
It was at the end of the campaign that President Obama was able to paint a clear distinction between himself and his challenger; when both men, in response to a question, had to describe “the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” After Romney embraced God, his family and the country and touted his success as an investor and businessman, the President finally took advantage of the opportunity to call the former governor out on his demonization of a large portion of the American public. President Obama responded, “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.” It was a striking difference to the President’s failure in the first debate to make that distinction.
With one debate remaining, and only three weeks from Election Day, the President regained his footing and might have steadied his standing among independent voters and solidified his base. After two strong performances by Vice President Biden and the President, the Romney ticket will have to rely on the airwaves and the final debate to make its case to the country. In the face of last night’s debate, Mitt Romney faces more questions about the true nature of his campaign platform and his history of switching positions when politically convenient or necessary.