Feature

Obama and Romney’s tense confrontation

President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign regained some traction after the town-hall-style debate with Mitt Romney.

What happened
President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign regained some traction this week after he showed renewed energy and confidence in a tense, town-hall-style debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Circling each other like two angry lions, the candidates fiercely criticized one another on issues that included taxes, immigration, energy policy, gun control, and the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya. Obama was on offense much of the night, with a far more animated and assertive tone than in the first debate two weeks ago, when his disastrously disengaged performance helped give Romney a major bump in the opinion polls and put several battleground states back in play.

Dismissing Romney’s five-point economic plan, Obama said it was actually a “one-point plan” designed “to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” Romney responded by listing the promises Obama made four years ago that he had failed to keep, including lowering unemployment to 5.4 percent, and failing to cut the deficit in half. “We can’t afford four more years like the last four years,” Romney said. A CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll of undecided voters found that 37 percent gave the win to Obama, and 30 percent to Mitt Romney, with 33 percent calling the debate a tie. The RealClearPolitics.com national election poll continued to find the race virtually tied.

What the editorials said
Welcome back, Mr. President, said The New York Times. Instead of the “windy and lethargic” responses he gave in Denver two weeks ago, Obama “regained full command of his vision and his legacy.” He was crisp and “persuasive” when defending the accomplishments of his first term, and he forcefully fought back against Romney’s “parade of falsehoods and unworkable promises.” Apparently Obama does want to be re-elected after all, said Bloomberg.com. But while he “won pretty decisively on points,” with a “spirited performance” that often left Romney sputtering defensively, Obama was at his weakest when making the case for why he deserves a second term.

That’s because Obama is a president without a plan, said The Wall Street Journal. He spoke generically about wanting to lower the deficit and improve education, but voters still don’t know what he might seek to accomplish in the next four years. Instead, he reflexively went on the attack, hoping the argument that “he’s not as awful as Mitt Romney” will be enough to eke out a victory.

What the columnists said
The president won this round, but barely, said Stephen Stromberg in WashingtonPost.com. He did voters “the courtesy of bringing his A game,” effectively poking holes in Romney’s “mathematically challenged tax plan” and scoring points on women’s issues and his rescue of Detroit’s auto industry. But he also had his fair share of vague and uninspiring moments. Romney, meanwhile, damaged himself by looking “defensive and pushy,” bickering over fine points with Obama and repeatedly arguing over procedure with moderator Candy Crowley.

The exchange over the Benghazi assault was Romney’s low point, said Daniel Larison in TheAmericanConservative.com. By wrongly insisting that Obama didn’t initially use the words “act of terror” to describe the assault, Romney turned what is clearly a political liability for the administration into “an advantage for his opponent,” giving Obama an opening to lecture him on politicizing a foreign-policy crisis. Romney was right on substance, if not on details, said John Podhoretz in the New York Post. The White House did take two weeks to admit the attack was an al Qaida–planned terrorist attack, and not a spontaneous mob reaction. But by getting tangled up in semantics, Romney let Obama off the hook.

The president’s base will be energized by his return to form, said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com, but that “won’t bring the race back to where it was before” the first debate. That face-off established Romney as a competent and worthy alternative to an incumbent who no longer inspires hope. “It’s possible this race is no longer about Barack Obama,” said Peter Beinart in TheDailyBeast.com. The polls may have swung so dramatically after the first debate because many voters were ready to vote against the president “so long as Romney passed a reasonable threshold.” If that’s true, “this campaign may now be Romney’s to lose.”

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