The second Presidential debate showcased a Barack Obama who was more lively than he seemed in the first debate, and he was met by an equally lively Mitt Romney who was prepared to steamroll over not just the President but moderator Candy Crowley as well. The “town hall” debate was designed to allow citizens to ask questions of the candidates directly, but very often, the ordinary folks were dispatched as quickly as possible by both men so that they could lean from their chairs and dangle their microphones from their wrists like dueling Dean Martins, then saunter around the stage, and occasionally pounce on each other. Obama accused Romney of offering the public a “sketchy deal”; the Republican made the wise remark, when aimed at self-proclaimed “undecided voters,” that “our party has been focused on big business [for] too long.” This was two guys doing the cha-cha, with punches thrown in.
This kind of debate is tough on any participant. Obama and Romney weren’t only obliged to engage with the people in front of them; they also had to be mindful of how their answers, facial expressions, and their body language communicated through the TV cameras to viewers at home. The men moved aggressively around the stage, lunging toward questioners a bit, retreating to their chairs only to leap up in protests of either inaccuracy or time-hogging.
Romney had some prepared material: At least three times, he said that the middle class has been “buried over the last four years” – what he and his advisors clearly thought would be a clever stinger, that restatement of a remark made not long ago by Joe Biden. But the format of the debate worked against that kind of cleverness; he was essentially doing “inside” jokes to a mass audience looking for bigger, broader lines.
They got them from Obama. When Romney echoed the Republican jeer that after the attack in Benghazi the President jetted off to a fundraiser, Obama used his strongest word yet to slap down that charge, saying that this kind of chronology parsing after a tragedy was “offensive.” After Romney brought up his amorphous “five-point plan” yet again, Obama landed the punchline of the night: “He doesn’t have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan: to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Obama also caught Romney on the chin when the latter said the President had failed to call the Sept. 11 deaths in Libya terrorist acts. Not true, Obama said, and he was backed up by Crowley, working as a reporter in noting that Obama had indeed used that word. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama asked, to a smattering of applause from the sworn-to-silence audience.
Speaking of Crowley: She was certainly more assertive than Jim Lehrer was, but not as forceful a moderator as Martha Raddatz. She allowed Romney to step over her protestations that he’d exceeded his time limit; she let him push through responses to Obama at moments when the debate should have gone on to the next question. I would wager that when the debate is pored over tomorrow, Romney will be shown to have gotten more jawbone-time than Obama. Which will probably thrill his supporters, who will believe it made him seem more commanding. For Obama backers, he’ll have come across as a guy who claimed to have a lot to say while they look for the content. [UPDATE: CNN’s time clock gave Obama more talk-time, about 44 minutes to Romney’s approximate 40.]
Romney’s strategy this time out was to proceed from the “Things are going to be better when I become President” playbook, banking on the idea that he could win over questioners by saying, in various ways, any change is better than what you’ve got now – “repeat of the last four years,” as he put it. And indeed, maybe that’ll work for him. Certainly the tone of the questions in general were full of frustration about the present state of things.
Obama was most effective in one debate tactic: Turning a topic into the point one really wants to make. Thus when citizen Katherine Fenton asked a question about income inequality for women, Obama took the opportunity to underscore the differences between Romney and himself on women’s health care issues and the (de)funding of Planned Parenthood.
On the other hand, I have a feeling many viewers at home and inside the “town hall” were feeling a bit dozy by the time Obama finally got around to mentioning Romney’s “47% speech” – reminding people of that came too late in the proceedings to play out in any effective way for either man.
Did Obama succeed in turning back Romney’s current momentum in the polls? Will next week’s final debate have much effect? How many more “undecided voters” will there possibly be by then?