President Obama followed the model of his vice-president in his second debate with Mitt Romney, repeatedly accusing his opponent of giving misleading answers and appearing to annoy the ex-governor at times.
Largely ignoring the crowd of 80 people at the town hall at Hofstra University in New York, Obama redirected nearly every question the audience asked at the town hall to a pointed attack on his opponent, much like Joe Biden did in his debate against Paul Ryan.
The most memorable moment came near the debate’s end, when Romney and Obama were asked about the killing of four Americans including the ambassador, in Libya last month.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief,” Obama declared.
And when Romney suggested that Obama had not described the embassy killings as an act of terror initially, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, softly interjected that the president had in fact used the phrase “acts of terror.” And Obama didn’t miss that moment.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama declared, elevating the mistake by Romney. (To be sure, the administration took much longer to specifically cast the embassy attacks as the work of terrorists motivated purely by anti-American sentiment, as Romney was arguing and Crowley later acknowledged)
The town hall format, with questions asked largely by the audience, was expected to reduce the amount of sniping between the candidates. It did not. The 90-minute debate included a number of tense moments when the candidates directly confronted one another.
At one point Romney pointed told Obama, “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking,” almost ordering the sitting president to remain in his chair. Obama’s said over and over again “that’s not true,” of Romney’s comments.
The two bickered over nearly every issue, from energy to jobs, often ending up in the same kind of confusing malaise with statistics being debated inconclusively as in their first debate.
But if the debate was largely a draw, Obama won on two exchanges. After Crowley corrected Romney on Libya, the ex-governor seemed flustered and unsettled.
And when Romney was asked how his policies would differ from George W. Bush, Obama used his chance to respond to cast his opponent as to the political right of the last Republican president, who left office with extremely low approval ratings.
“You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation,” Obama said. “George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy.”
Obama was also helped by the questions in this debate. In the first one, nearly all of the discussion centered on the president’s biggest vulnerability, the weak economic growth and high jobless rate in his tenure.
But in this debate, questions were asked about women’s rights, immigration and George W. Bush, all subjects that put Romney on the defensive.
This debate seems unlikely to have the dramatic effect their previous debate did. Romney gained from the first one in part because Republicans and conservative-leaning voters became more enthusiastic about his candidacy, which had seemed listless for about two months. Obama’s strong performance on Tuesday was pleasing, but not shocking to Democrats.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr