US2012, second debate: Obama strikes back

By J Brooks Spector 17 October 2012

President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney paced and prowled before an audience of officially certified undecided voters Tuesday night. They squared off over hot-button questions from the audience concerning tax rates, tax deductions, coal and oil production incentives, job generation and what actually happened in Benghazi, Libya. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

This 16 October debate, labelled a “town hall” in a nod to one of those hallowed traditions of American political life and history, had already been designated by the “punditocracy”, the blogosphere and every political consultant in the country as a decisive moment for the chances of the two candidates. And this was before a single word had even been spoken at Hofstra University.

In the proverbial nutshell, the fundamental tasks for the two candidates were simple: Obama needed to re-establish the momentum of his campaign for re-election and reach out and connect with undecided voters; Romney needed to consolidate his recent polling gains following his impressive performance in their first encounter. Within an hour of the conclusion of the event, CNN polling of registered voters had it tilting Obama’s way, 46% to 39%. And this was with the sample containing slightly more Republicans than the population as a whole. Asked if the debate influenced them to be more likely to vote for a candidate, respondents fall evenly – 25% for each candidate.

The two were visibly pumped for their encounter – it almost begged a question: was Red Bull somehow secretly bootlegged into the drinking water in their respective green rooms? They frequently interrupted each other or appealed to debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN for more time to reply (even to their opponent’s rebuttals).

Sometimes Crowley even seemed to be labouring hard with the need to keep the two men in their respective verbal corners and to prevent them from squabbling over time allocations and the right of further reply to replies. The president was far more aggressive than in their first debate two weeks ago, but at times it seemed Romney was even too aggressive. This came through especially if one watched those squiggly worms at the bottom of the TV screen representing the positive or negative views of a collection of still-undecided voters in Ohio, one of the key battleground states where a clear frontrunner has yet to be defined. While the extensive, in-depth parsing of this debate and its effect on voter attitudes and support will come forward in the next several days, instant reactions from the pundits seemed to score it a less-than-decisive win for the president, but definitely not a knock-out.

As far as the points raised by the two men, it seemed Romney is still wrestling with an inability to explain in a clear, crisp, cogent way how the gossamer-thin detail in his tax proposals will actually work (which tax deductions, exactly, he is proposing to limit remains notably vague). Moreover, Romney suddenly insisted he supports open access to birth control for all women and that he will be really tough on China, that old-currency-manipulating-country, in an effort to stimulate job creation.

Romney seemed to take incoming fire over how he can be tough on China when he profits from outsourcing in his investments and that whole issue of whether the president referred to those tragic events in Benghazi as acts of terror or not. 

Obama spent significant energy underscoring his record of supporting the economy’s generation of new jobs and putting the onus on Romney’s presumed plan for Medicare vouchers and cuts in Planned Parenthood’s federal grants. Not surprisingly, Obama also noted that Osama bin Laden was now history, the Iraq war was over and that his administration had cut taxes on the middle class.

Obama also made an important case that as far as job creation, it needs to be understood by everyone that some jobs will not come back from their movement out of the country, adding that, “I want high-skill jobs to be added to the economy. We can’t cut research and development and we need to train engineers. Without that companies won’t come here.” And he pivoted back to that infamous 47%, the moochers versus the makers, that came from Romney’s recorded presentation at a Boca Raton, Florida, fundraiser a few months ago, replying that the country needs to get back to rewarding risk takers even as it allows everyone to compete on a level playing field.

If one had been measuring the heat in the room, it probably would have measured the biggest spikes over support for domestic energy production, immigration reform – but without a clear winner over what policies will work best, and how to categorize exactly what happened at the Benghazi consulate. On the latter, Candy Crowley took a moment to fact check from the moderator’s desk, correcting the challenger on whether Obama had specifically used the word “terror” or not in the days after the event. Obama also called out Romney, charging him with playing politics with national security and that was “offensive”. 

To this viewer at least, it seemed Mitt Romney worked overtime to segue from almost any question asked back to prepared, pre-packaged sound bites that have been rehearsed and rehearsed, standing out like raisins in a pudding. On the whole, it seems that Obama met his minimum goal of stanching the electoral bleeding. Romney, on the other hand, did manage to continue to present himself as a reasonable alternative to the incumbent president.

Ultimately, it seemed both candidates had been reminded of novelist EM Forster’s famous lines in Howard’s End, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” Still unknown is whether either of them did, with whom and what difference it may make come 6 November. DM

Read more: 

  • “With stakes high, Obama hits back at Romney in a fiery second debate,” on The Washington Post;
  • “No Guarantee of Obama Rebound in Second Debate,” on The New York Times;
  • “Obama and Romney clash in spiky debate,” on BBC;

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama answer a question at the same time during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young


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