I scored the debate as a win for Obama, but on points, not a knockout. Romney appeared to be uncomfortable with the format. He wrangled with moderator Candy Crowley in a manner that seemed designed to intimidate. As in the first debate, he demanded extra time; unlike the first debate, he didn’t get it. The town hall format seemed to work in Obama’s favor. His personality was more effective in the intimate setting. This time he was the aggressor.
Obama won the exchange over the auto bailout: “When Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt. I said we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry, and it’s come surging back.”
Romney won the exchange on energy: “You’ve cut permits and licenses, You took away leases, now production on government lands is down. I will fight for oil, coal, and natural gas. You’re paying more for energy, the president’s policy is not working.” Obama’s response to why he didn’t build the pipeline from Canada was feeble. “We’ve built enough pipelines.” Awful answer.
On taxes, Obama said his philosophy was to give middle class families tax relief and that he had cut taxes 18 times.: “If we’re serious about reducing the deficit, make sure the wealthy do more. Romney’s allies in Congress want tax breaks for the top 2%.”
On lowering tax rates, Obama said Romney would cut taxes around $5 trillion. “Romney would spend $2 trillion on defense programs the military doesn’t want. Add another trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy…How are you going to do it? He can’t tell you. The math doesn’t add up. Nobody who has looked at it says it adds up.” Romney: “Of course it adds up. He said he’d cut the deficit in half, instead he has doubled it.”
Obama was strong on women’s issues. He assailed Republicans for eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood (“millions of women”). “That’s a pocketbook issue. It’s not just women, it’s a family issue.”
There was a very interesting question from an audience member who was disappointed with the lack of progress but feared a return to the policies of the Bush administration. Romney replied: “President Bush and I are different people.”
Romney was most effective when he was pointing out what Obama had promised to do but never did, such as a comprehensive immigration bill. There was quite a list of such failed promises. That was Obama’s biggest weakness in the debate. At one point he fell back on the weak argument that “we came in under tough times,” adding that he had presided over 31 consecutive months of job growth. After four years, he can’t pass that buck.
Obama was better than Romney when it came to targeting constituencies. I have already mentioned women. He did it on immigration as well. Obama said Romney’s position on immigration was designed by the person who wrote the Arizona law.
On the issue of security at the Libyan consulate, Obama said, “I gave three instructions. Beef up security, investigate what happened, find out who did this and hunt them down. While we were dealing with the crisis, Romney put out a press release.”
One of the most interesting questions was, What do you believe is the biggest misconception people have about you. Romney said that the president has tried to characterize me as someone who doesn’t care about the American people. When I was governor of Massachusetts, I got our schools ranked number one in the nation.
Obama didn’t really answer the question. He said, “I believe the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known. But I believe everybody should have a fair shot. When Romney said 47% of the country considered themselves victims, look at who he was talking about. Students, veterans, people who work hard every day.”
Romney is a better debater than Obama, but Obama is better at tying issues to constituencies. The president won the debate, but he won it on likeability, not on issues. And he remains vulnerable in this election. I think the parallel to 1980 remains very strong: Obama = Carter, Romney = Reagan, and in the final days before the election, the public could turn against the incumbent, having decided that he has had his chance. Obama cannot articulate a vision for his second term. That was clear during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. He hasn’t closed the deal.