President Obama performed well enough in tonight’s debate, winning narrowly on points. But he did not get the knockout performance he really needed after his abysmal performance in the first debate two weeks ago.
Each candidate scored some points tonight, and each was given a few raps on the knuckles for trying to speak out of turn by Candy Crowley, the CNN journalist who served as moderator.
Obama’s best moment came on the topic of Libya, even though he failed to answer the question posed. Romney alluded to but failed to hit Obama accurately over the fact that, for weeks after the attack on the Benghazi consulate, Obama and his top aides insisted that a campy anti-Islamic YouTube video was to blame. Romney instead focused on an issue that conservatives have created as a red herring – that Obama did not call the attacks "terrorism."
Crowley chimed in to correct Romney on this point -- to insist that President Obama had actually said the Benghazi attack was “an act of terror” right after the attack. In fact, as Crowley noted after the debate, Obama used those words in a fairly general sense: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” not clearly labeling this particular incident as terrorism. But Romney came off badly, and this wasn’t Crowley’s fault. There is no reason Romney should not have been prepared to make that distinction, and to ask why the administration continued to blame a YouTube video even though the White House knew 24 hours after the attack that al Qaeda was involved.
Romney’s best moment will receive less attention than his flub on Libya. President Obama completely ducked a question on the rise in gasoline prices. A participant asked him if he agreed with Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s various comments that gas prices should be higher, and that the Department of Energy should not keep them down. Obama argued that under his administration that energy production, particularly domestic drilling on federal lands, has increased. Romney contradicted him: “Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent.” Romney was correct: According to Obama's federal Energy Information Administration’s 2012 report, oil production on federal lands fell 14 percent in 2011 - from 726 million barrels in 2010 to 626 million barrels in 2011. Romney was strongest in closing out this issue by noting that the proof is at the pump: Gas prices are up with the national average at $3.78 per gallon, up from $3.46 a year ago, according to AAA.
Romney did well on some issues where he might be expected to be weak -- women in the workforce, for example. On immigration, he hit Obama effectively for failing to propose reforms as promised, a charge to which Obama had no effective answer.
For his part, Obama was far better prepared this time. Unlike in the first debate, he had substantive answers that went beyond his stump speech talking points. Perhaps more important, he showed a higher energy level and made himself look presidential. He pulled out the Lily Ledbetter Act to hurt Romney with women, pointed out a surprising rise in coal jobs under his watch (which the BLS numbers seem to bear out) and even emerged unscathed from the Libya round.
Romney erred badly in his attempts to use the Socratic method – to ask Obama questions. It essentially constituted an invitation for Obama to take the stage from him, which Obama did.
Obama also made a big mistake by saving up Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments to the very end. This was a mistake in several ways. For one thing, the debate ended after 10:30, and by that point, a good portion of the audience had already tuned out. More importantly, Obama should have tried to plant a seed in viewers’ minds, then build up the negative impression of “47 percent” Romney throughout the debate. His allusions to Mitt Romney’s career as a private equity investor would have been much more powerful if the 47 percent had been invoked earlier or at that moment.
How does this debate affect the race? Probably not much. This debate was likely less-watched than the first. Although it could break some of Romney’s momentum, the governor’s major accomplishment in the first debate – to demonstrate that he is a serious and competent alternative to Obama – has not been undone.
Obama, on the other hand, succeeded in challenging Romney this time. But he still has not articulated a second-term agenda, and he did nothing to articulate one in this debate. This leaves him as the defender of staying the course, at a time when few Americans are satisfied with the results. Hence Romney’s subtle line, of which we’ll likely hear more in the next three weeks: “We don’t have to settle.”