Strategically, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama came into the second presidential debate from very different directions. Having won big in the first debate, Romney established himself as a plausible replacement for the incumbent and took the lead in most polls. Obama’s flop failure in the first debate left him damaged as a false messiah and flagging in the polls. Romney had even pulled nearly even with women voters, who traditionally support Democrats and who supported Obama overwhelmingly four years ago. So Romney needed to not fall apart and get out of the debate with at least a draw. Obama needed to score an obvious win.
Both men entered the stage looking relaxed and ready to rumble, smiling at each other and at members of the town-hall-style crowd of what we have been told is made up of undecided voters.
The first question came to Romney from a 20-year-old college student, who asked how he could be assured that after graduation he will be able to get a job and support himself. The job market in the Obama years has been abysmal for recent college grads. Romney led off talking about keeping college affordable, then segued, saying “I want you to be able to get a job!” Half of college grads can’t find jobs, Romney said, and are saddled with too much debt. It will take bringing jobs back and not keeping the middle class “crushed” as Vice President Joe Biden recently said. Romney scored well. Obama answered, “Jeremy, your future is bright” before attacking Romney’s position on the automotive bailout and saying that we need to change the tax code to keep businesses working in the U.S. Obama’s start this time was far better than the first. He still spoke mostly in generalities that have little to do with his actual policies, but he seemed to have organized his thoughts better and backed them up with some details. Romney retorted that the president’s plan hasn’t worked and the real unemployment rate is 10.7%, not the officially reported 7.8%. Romney then scored Obama for saying that Romney wanted to let the auto companies go bankrupt when Obama did in fact let them go bankrupt. Obama replied that what Romney said “just isn’t true.”
From there, Obama went sharply partisan and attacked Romney’s five-point economic plan as a one-point plan: tax breaks for the rich. Obama, judging by the past four years, has a one-point plan too: spend money we don’t have. On the CNN meter, Obama’s loveline went south especially among women. He came off as delivering a bit of trash-talking. I’m not sure most undecided voters are looking for that in a president. The consensus on Twitter formed that this Obama was different from two weeks ago, though not necessarily better.
On energy, Obama promoted more investing in “green” tech (another one failed the day of the debate), while Romney assailed Obama’s anti-coal and anti-oil policies. He brought up the fact that Obama plotted to bankrupt coal companies from the start of his administration.
Candy Crowley, the moderator, then asked her own question: Is the current energy environment the “new normal?” Obama trash-talked again, saying that “Much of what Gov. Romney just said isn’t true” before not detailing any untrue thing said by Romney.
Fireworks at 16 minutes past the hour, Romney was answering a question about energy when Obama interrupted. Romney turned: “You cut oil drilling on federal lands.” Obama: “No I didn’t.” Romney: “By how much did you cut?” Obama would not answer. On the facts, Romney was clearly right. On the style, it’s harder to say. Obama was assertive but is that enough to overcome the high price of gas in most Americans’ minds?
Mark this. At 19 past the hour Obama said that the price of gas was lower four years ago because we were about to go through an economic collapse. He said that Romney might bring prices back down by fostering another collapse. That simply made no sense at all. President Obama does not get supply and demand. It’s that simple. In Mitt Romney we have a capitalist; in Barack Obama we have an ideologue. There is the choice on November 6. I will score the remainder of the debate, but Romney won it with Obama’s ignorant comment on the price of gasoline.