What made the first presidential debate so shocking—and what sent liberals into complete panic—was the fact that, for the first time in four years, President Obama had to face an equal—and he didn’t seem to know how to respond. He looked less like the president, and more like another politician, who might not be ready for another four years on the job.
Last night’s town hall-style debate gave Obama a chance to sound presidential again—and he took it. On every subject—and especially foreign policy—Obama sounded like someone who was proud of his record, ready to defend it, and eager to continue the fight for another term. For the first time in a long time, Obama defended the core policies of his administration, while offering a portrait for the next four years, if he’s re-elected. As he said to one audience member, “The commitments I’ve made, I’ve kept. And those that I haven’t been able to keep, it’s not for lack of trying and we’re going to get it done in a second term.”
Before the debate, I predicted that this format would work to Romney’s advantage. Likeability is his core weakness, a town hall debate would give him a chance to show the compassion and humanity that’s been missing from his campaign.
That was ... wrong.
It’s not that his performance was as bad as the one Obama gave two weeks ago—he had several solid moments, and hit Obama hard on the failures of the last four years—as much as it was that he was overcome by the habits and tendencies that damaged him in the Republican presidential debates. His biggest mistakes—the $10,000 bet, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!”—came when his opponents needled him and got under his skin.
It’s almost certainly true that Team Obama was aware of this, and as such, adopted a similar strategy. From the beginning, Obama’s approach to answering questions was to defend his record, make a contrast with Romney, and then attack Romney for not telling the truth. “That’s just not true,” was the most oft-used phrase in Obama’s repertoire, and it was clearly meant to bother Romney.
Obama’s attacks made Romney seem peevish, over-eager, and more than a little condescending—on more than one occasion, he spoke over the president and the moderator, Candy Crowley, in an effort to make a point or respond. He focused too much on the rules of the contest—complaining when he didn’t have a chance to respond—and made a huge mistake in trying to challenge Obama on Libya. What was supposed to be a “gotcha moment”—hitting Obama on his unwillingness to call the Benghazi attacks “terrorism”—became a debacle when Crowley noted, correctly, that Obama called them an “act of terror” the next day.
(This was such a flub that the audience clapped when Crowley called him out on the distortion.)
From then on, Romney was on the defensive, and had a hard time giving solid answers. This was especially true on social issues, where he had to sound moderate without offending his conservative supporters, who expect him to govern from the hard right. This led to one of the most amusing exchanges of the evening, when he attempted to avoid a question on equal pay—his campaign refuses to comment on whether he supports the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—by noting his efforts to bring women into his Massachusetts administration:
[W]e took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our 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.
“Binders full of women” has become an internet joke, and indicative of Romney’s poor performance on women’s issues. To wit: He all but blamed single mothers for gun violence in an attempt to answer a question on gun control, and as The New Republic’s Amy Sullivan points out, “He talked about how in a Romney administration, employers would be so ‘anxious’ to hire good workers that they might even consider women.” Romney closed the gap with Obama last week by winning over women voters; something tells me that some women will return to the Democratic fold after hearing Romney’s answers.
Indeed, while it’s hard to say how this will play out in the polls, what we can say is that President Obama has re-engergized Democrats by giving this strong performance. Obama may not see a boost, but he will make up ground on account of greater Democratic enthusiasm. And he can use this win to build momentum for the final debate, on foreign policy. This is Romney’s weakest area, and it’s where he has the opportunity to either overperform, or completely tank.