President Obama—a punching bag in the first presidential debate—became a sledge hammer in his second showdown Tuesday night against Republican Mitt Romney.
In what might prove to be the decisive 90 minutes of the presidential campaign, both flashed moments of seething anger during the town hall-style forum in New York. Their raised voices and intimidating glares conveyed a sense of mutual disdain for the other. The dislike went well beyond their differences on tax, energy, immigration, and the recent al Qaeda-affiliated attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The former Massachusetts governor has been climbing in the polls after successfully positioning himself as a champion of the middle class during their first Oct. 3 debate. Obama swung hard to stop that assent, labeling Romney—who co-founded the private equity firm Bain Capital—as a conservative extremist who will coddle the wealthy.
“Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five point plan, he has a one point plan—and that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” Obama said. “That’s been his philosophy in the private sector. That’s been his philosophy as governor. That’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate—you can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, layoff the workers, strip away their pensions, and still make money.”
A CNN poll of registered voters who watched the debate indicates the gambit might have worked. Forty-six percent chose Obamaas the victor, with 39 percent for Romney.
Republican pollster John Zogby gave the win to the Democratic incumbent. “Obama was on fire,” he said, while Romney “lacked details and simply got caught in representing some ideas that were very different from the Mitt Romney who debated 19 times with his GOP opponents.”
Romney rehashed his long-time argument that Obama had “crushed” the middle class by failing to lead the economy all the way out of recession—with unemployment at a historically high 7.8 percent despite government spending that produced four straight years of deficits in excess of $1 trillion.
In one particularly heated exchange, he dismissed Obama’s professed support of fossil fuels. “The proof of whether the strategy is working is the price you pay at the pump,” said Romney, knowing that gasoline prices on Long Island, New York had nearly doubled from $1.80 a gallon over the past four years.
Drilling on federal lands is down 14 percent between 2010 and 2011, Romney continued. Obama disputed the claim that he was hostile to oil and natural gas—and records kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate that overall production has increased since 2008.
“I don’t think anyone truly believes that you’re a person who’s going to be pushing for oil, gas and coal,” Romney responded.
Honesty and candor were frequently at the heart of their disputes. Romney would press the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, for additional time to address statements he deemed inaccurate, while Obama repeated variations on the refrain, “What Gov. Romney said just isn’t true.”
When the GOP candidate hit back, he often opened himself up to an uppercut. Trying to shake-off criticism about his offshore accounts and investments in companies that outsourced to China, Romney noted that Obama also had foreign holdings.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” he asked.
“I don't look at my pension, it's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long," Obama said, as the 80-person crowd of voters who were reportedly undecided began to chuckle.
Romney similarly tried to score points on the deadly security breach of the consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others. Obama accepted responsibility for their deaths, reiterating that the day after the tragedy he stood in the Rose Garden and said he did call it an act of terror. Here’s exactly what he said: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
The former Massachusetts governor leapt at the bait, saying that he wanted to get on the record that Obama had described the incident as an act of terrorism, and not connected it to a spontaneous demonstration as mistakenly claimed at first by intelligence reports.
“Is that what you’re saying?” Romney said.
“Please proceed, governor,” Obama responded, drawing him into a trap.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney said.
“Get the transcript,” Obama said.
“He did in fact, sir,” Crowley chimed in.
“Would you say that a little louder, Candy,” Obama said, once again drawing laughter.
Crowley then acknowledged that it took two weeks for the administration to disavow the demonstration over the anti-Islamic video that at first was said to have prompted the attack.
Among the frequent disruptions, Obama did something he failed to do during their previous match-up in Denver. He challenged Romney head-on. He knocked the governor’s commitment during the GOP primary to the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants, a clear policy loser with Latino voters. And he took the Republican to task for not spelling out the “sketchy deal” of which programs he would slash to find the $5 trillion needed over the next decade to cover the cost of his planned 20 percent reduction in income taxes. Romney responded that the president has not delivered on immigration reform, nor upheld his pledge to halve the deficit.
After the question, “What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?” Without a strong economic track record to hype, he theorized, Obama had chosen instead to attack him personally.
“In the nature of a campaign, it seems that some campaigns are focused on attacking a person rather than prescribing their own future and the things they’d like to do,” Romney said. “In the course of that, I think the president’s campaign has tried to characterize me as someone who is very different than who I am.”
Then, as if expecting Obama to end by lobbing a cannon shot about his “47 percent” comment, Romney tried to preempt the impact: “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous for America again.”
Obama didn’t hesitate to remind the millions of people watching of the former governor’s surreptitiously videotaped comment to donors in May that “47 percent” of Americans don’t pay income taxes and believe they are victims who are dependent on the government.
“I believe Gov. Romney is a good man, who loves his family and cares about his faith,” Obama said. “But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about: Folks on Social Security, veterans who sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams but also this country’s dreams . . . people who are working hard every day, paying payroll taxes, gas taxes but don’t make enough income. And I want to fight for them. . . . Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”