Did President Obama energize Democrats with his performance at Tuesday night’s debate on Long Island in New York? After all, there’s been lots of bemoaning among his party faithful in recent days. Many of them judged Mr. Obama’s first debate performance in Denver a disaster. Some went so far as to wonder whether the president’s apparent lethargy in the Rocky Mountain smackdown two weeks ago meant he didn’t really want to be president anymore.
Well, they can come in off the ledge. Obama’s performance at Hofstra University should quiet Democrats’ doubts and help energize them for the tough final weeks of the campaign. Whether the president’s forceful, almost physical confrontations with GOP nominee Mitt Romney stop his slide in the polls remains to be seen. But snap surveys judged Obama the night’s winner (though not by the margin Mr. Romney enjoyed after the first debate). And partisans were thrilled by Obama’s attacks on his rival’s policies and defense of his own administration.
“To my mind, Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal ... he behaved like a president,” wrote influential Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan.
OK – to be fair, Mr. Sullivan doesn’t label himself a Democrat. He further likened Obama’s Tuesday performance to that of “a lethal, restrained predator,” which is way over the top. But he’s been a strong Obama supporter since the 2008 primaries – and after the first debate he’d wondered aloud whether the president had lost the election at a stroke.
Polls taken immediately after Tuesday's debate showed that a plurality of voters considered Obama the winner, though not by much. In a CBS News/Knowledge networks survey of self-described undecided voters, 37 percent of respondents said Obama came out on top, while 30 percent picked Romney, and 33 percent called it a tie. A CNN poll of registered voters went for Obama by a margin of 46 percent to 37 percent.
Again, there’s no indication yet that this will bend the course of the campaign, as Romney’s overwhelming victory in the first debate appears to have done. But it may rally Obama’s dispirited party and refocus the race on fundamental issues in its final days.
“Barack Obama did well enough in the second debate that he can rest assured about one thing: if he loses his bid for a second term it won’t be because he is bad at debates,” wrote Politico’s John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin at the top of their debate wrap-up story.
As to substance, both Obama and Romney went back time and again to the basic argument for their campaigns. Obama framed the election as a choice between two very different ways forward, and charged his opponent as a flip-flopper on energy, women’s issues, immigration, and taxes. Romney gave as good as he got in his attempt to frame the election as a referendum on Obama’s job performance. The GOP nominee pounded relentlessly on the numbers behind the weak economy: 23 million Americans unemployed or looking for better jobs, unemployment hovering around 8 percent, and more Americans than ever on food stamps.
The most theatrical moment focused on Libya and the Obama administration’s shifting explanations as to what lay behind the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama at one point said that he’d gone to the Rose Garden the day after the killings and described them as “terror.” Romney bore in, claiming that it wasn’t until two weeks later that Obama used that word to describe the tragedy in Benghazi. Then moderator Candy Crowley, who had a transcript of the event, stepped in and noted that Obama was right about his word choice.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” said Obama. A burst of applause from the audience then obscured Ms. Crowley’s second point: Romney is right that the administration’s story about the attacks has shifted over time.
At another point, while the two men were arguing over who would be tougher on China, and whether Romney’s pension contains investments in Chinese companies, the ex-Massachusetts governor turned and told Obama he should check his own pension. Presumably, the Romney camp’s opposition researchers believe Obama’s investments have China connections as well.
But Romney never got that out, fully.
“I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” replied Obama.
“Too bad for President Obama that he saved his aggressive performance for his second debate with Mitt Romney. If he had done as well in the first debate, the presidential race might look different today,” wrote Mr. Barnes.
Over at the National Review, John O’Sullivan held that, taken question by question, the debate was won by Romney. Romney gave a strong list of the president’s failures in response to a question from an African-American audience member as to why he should give Obama another chance, for one thing. He handled a question about equal pay for women in a deft manner, in Mr. O’Sullivan’s view.
But Romney seemed taken aback by Obama’s Libya response and appeared to tire as the event progressed, according to the National Review writer.
“Whatever the reason, they seemed more evenly matched by the end. And that impression retrospectively colored the judgments of critics on the entire evening,” wrote O’Sullivan.