A combative President Obama did much better as dispelling the atmosphere of unreality Romney projects on stage tonight, causing Romney to engage in a self-pitying moment near the end, that the "president has a problem with who I am" personally. Romney felt it is okay to slam Obama's record but that Romney's business record should be off the table. That self-pity should have lost him the election, along with his non-answers on women's issues, his fumbling on immigration, tax cuts, Libya, etc. The problem is that if you don't understand anything about the issues, which includes the majority of voters, you won't necessarily understand that Romney was fumbling these issues.
The first question was about jobs for college grads, and Romney claimed he's for expanding Pell Grants and student loans, which the Republicans have been fighting for years. Obama stuck to script and said we should support manufacturing, education, energy independence, and invest war savings. Romney claimed fewer people are employed than when Obama took office and Romney's plan would create 12 million jobs. He also claimed he had wanted Detroit to go through a managed bankruptcy that would make them stronger, which Obama asserted wasn't true. It wasn't, but the public didn't have enough recollection of those 2009 events to remember who was telling the truth. Obama said Romney didn't have a real plan, which is true, and that Obama created 5 million jobs: well that's a question of duelling facts and no way for the public to understand that Obama's numbers are right. Obama should have explained that if you go to May, 2009 as your starting point, that's where his job creation numbers came from and that Romney was in effect blaming him for losses caused by the Bush recession in the first months of 2009. Neither question really answered the college kid who needs a job in three years, although Romney claimed to. The general point went to Obama because he was more specific about his plans, although the right wing commentators at Fox tried to attack Obama for saying "I, I, I, I" all the time.
The second question was about gas prices and Obama made a clever quip, but fumbled the question badly. In effect, Romney says we can have energy independence in 5 years and lower gas prices, but this isn't true. In order to make shale oil profitable enough to fulfill all our energy needs, and get production on line that quickly, gas prices have to be much higher than they are today, and if prices were high enough to do that, then OPEC could hold or lower prices and the energy companies could make hundreds of billions by getting their oil abroad. In that scenario, you could only get energy independence if you could force the oil companies not to buy foreign oil. Obama said Romney would turn energy policy over to oil, gas, and coal companies, which was perhaps too much of an accusation. He will be attacked by the fact-checkers for saying it. What could Obama have said? When Romney blamed Obama for oil prices going up, Obama should have responded that we want energy independence, lower carbon emissions, and reasonable gas prices, but that it's a balancing act to get there. Romney says we can have lower prices and energy independence together, and that's not going to happen. People in America aren't stupid. If we can create jobs at home instead of sending billions to Saudi Arabia, they will be willing to pay some more, but not so much more that we lose more jobs in other sectors than we gain in the energy sector. That should have been the response. On the other hand, Romney didn't really "win" in the sense that his goal of energy independence in five years with little sense it can even be done and with no coercion of the oil companies has to sound like a wild fantasy. Recommendation to Obama: focus on the price Romney's energy independence in five years would send gas to, the harm it would do to employment, and the need to coerce oil companies not to import cheaper oil to satisfy that demand, which Romney would have get from Congress. Romney has no real plan, but Obama still fails to get that message across.
The third question was about taxes. Here Obama really shined in pointing out that Romney's tax proposals don't add up. Romney repeated his lie that he doesn't want to reduce the proportion of total taxes paid by the rich even though all his proposals (like ending inheritance tax, which Obama consistently fails to mention) have that effect. Obama got a little shrill, but he had to, Romney is selling snake oil. I think that a real undecided voter watching this debate would have found this a compelling point for Obama, but I don't think Romney leaning voters would have been swayed at all.
Then they talked women's issues, and here Obama had a clear advantage, but it was kind of a negative for Obama that he seemed more comfortable talking about this issue than about taxes and the economy. Romney's improved election prospects in this election since the first debate were largely based on his better standing with women. Instead of answering this question, Romney went back to repeat his lies about taxes and the economy, which was a missed opportunity. He then said he employed equal numbers of women in his Massachusetts cabinet, but that may have sounded like a quota to some of his male supporters. He certainly can't defend his tenure at Bain Capital in similar terms. His attempt to claim he did not want employers to have the right to refuse health plans offering contraception to women was an entirely and startlingly new position. Again, Obama failed to congratulate him for his change of heart, but at least he showed irritation for the lie.
Next, the candidates were asked to be more specific on jobs plans. Romney said he would crack down on China, and that was the heart of his plan, to call them out on Day 1 as a currency manipulator. What he did not say is how that would work, would he put tariffs on Chinese goods? Would he ban Chinese imports? He won't say these things because he doesn't really intend to do them, and the president should have pointed that out.
Obama did a great job in defending his record: mentioning he doubled unfair trade complaints and won them all, that he got the Chinese currency to appreciate 11% during his term, that he got several new trade agreements, and that exports had increased significantly (they have almost doubled) under his presidency. He also said Romney was involved with pioneers in outsourcing and would be the last one to get tough on China. It was a good point, but it really should have been reinforced by stating that Romney attacks my record, but he says his business record is irrelevant and that we should only talk about his plans, but I think his record id relevant in evaluating whether or not he will follow his plans. That would have been a nice little extra "oomph," but Obama did get in some good points.
On immigration Romney suddenly announced he was for the DREAM Act, which the Republicans have fought for years. Obama did an excellent job of handling this issue, but it's not one Romney would have really cared to win. It was clear that the longer the debate went on, the more fluent and tough Obama became.
Next came a softball Republican oriented question saying that the State Department refused extra security in Libya and that's why we were attacked. Obama got testy and said those were his friends who got killed that they were talking about. He slammed Romney's early criticism, which elicited a denial. Obama actually came off worse from this exchange than necessary by making it a personal insult when he could have also pointed out Republican Congresses cut funding requests for security and that the Bush administration had coddled Qadaffi while pretending to oppose him, when it turned out Qaddafi did have weapons of mass destruction when he was overthrown. That said, Romney did not "win" the question because he had nothing to offer but the usual Republican nonsense about "apologizing for America." Certainly, Obama's base got fired up by this answer when Romney lied and said Obama waited 14 days to call it a terror attack and Obama quoted his words the morning after the attack, when he said it was a terror attack.
There was a question about gun control. Obama tried to avoid the trap of saying he is against guns, which the right has been trying to put him in, but he wasn't entirely successful. He wasn't going to get any of those votes anyway. Romney's blaming gun violence on single parent families was laughable and insulting.
On the subject of Outsourcing, Obama slammed Romney personally, but forgot to mention that Romney also offshores his money. Romney probably lost the debate by whining that the president had some personal hate of "who I am" which was not about policy. He did not do a good job of denying his past in this area or explaining how his "getting tough on China" would actually work.
Both candidates made appeals about education in their closing remarks, with Obama talking about giving everybody a chance, and Romney outrageously promising the U.S. would be #1 in education if only he were elected president.
Obama came off much better on this debate, but unfortunately, did not entirely slam the door by persuading the average voter who hasn't been following any of these issues (does the average voter have any idea what Romney meant by self-deportation?). Obama did enough to sway some voters, and Romney definitely sounded like a bully and then a grouchy victim, losing some but not all of the style points he picked up in the previous debate. I think Obama is back in the game, but it will still require a massive effort and some intense persuasion to sway the voters between now and November 6. Unfortunately, all that's left is a foreign policy debate.
I am gratified that the president did not throw away the opportunity of the second debate. I don't find it likely that he put the election out of reach of the Republican propaganda storm that is coming. Indeed, Romney still got a few of his bogus points across without adequate rebuttal. I guess that makes me cautiously pessimistic about the results of the debate, but I think Obama can win and right now has a better than even chance of doing so if a titanic effort is waged these next three weeks.