The Barack Obama that his supporters thought they always knew – the certain and sometimes soaring candidate of 2008 – made a dramatic reappearance at the second debate here last night, aggressively countering his opponent Mitt Romney on topics from taxation to foreign policy and reigniting his campaign for a second term.
In contrast to the first debate in Denver two weeks ago which saw a flatfooted Mr Obama almost overrun by his rival, last night’s town-hall style debate in Hempstead on Long Island was threaded with high drama as the President embraced the fight and stood for nothing from his foe. Energy policy, outsourcing of jobs, relations with China, the recent events in Libya and immigration all came up and all provoked fireworks.
While the invited audience of 82 undecided voters pitched questions and waited for answers, they saw two men who were testy verging on mutually disdainful. The high energy reflected the high stakes with the one determined to protect his new momentum and the other under intense pressure to reclaim it. In an exchange on energy policy early on, Mr Romney scolded the President for interrupting. “You will get your chance. I am still speaking,” he said.
Mr Romney saw the Obama train coming and did what he could to buckle tracks. Most effective perhaps were his efforts to turn the night into a referendum on the President’s record of the past four years, ticking off promises that hadn’t been kept and goals that had not been met. “The middle class has been crushed over the last four years,” he said, citing the 23 million Americans who still don’t have jobs and his failure to introduce immigration reform.
But Mr Obama fired off one rapier shot after another. Near the end, he finally did what so many of his supporters had been begging for, recalling the time behind closed doors his opponent disparaged the 47 per cent of Americans who get government support and don’t pay income tax. “Think who he was talking about,” the President implored, noting that that the group includes students, soldier and veterans. “If they succeed I believe this country succeeds.”
And he assailed the Republican for offering a blueprint of tax cuts that, he said, offered no clue as to how they would be paid for. “If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, ‘Here, I want to spend seven or eight trillion dollars, and we're going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it,’ you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people,” he said.
The tension was no more palpable than when Mr Romney insisted that the President had failed when he spoke in the Rose Garden after the Benghazi attacks that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans to characterise it as a terror attack. Mr Obama said he had. His eyes blazing, Mr Romney clearly thought he had the President trapped until the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, corrected him. That triggered a small rare ripple of applause in the audience, forbidden by the rules. Mr Romney thus mangled his mission to make Libya an Achilles heel for Mr Obama on foreign policy, a fumble likely to infuriate his own supporters.
An instant CNN viewers’ poll showed 46 per cent giving the night to Mr Obama and 39 for Mr Romney. That is not overwhelming but if that is the perception that holds into today, the contours of this topsy-turvy contest may be reset again, and not a moment too soon for the incumbent who saw his advantage nationally and in the battleground erased post-Denver.
“I think that narrative is going to be entirely different tomorrow,” top Obama strategist Robert Gibbs said of the now neck-and-neck race after the end of the debate here on the campus of Hofstra University. Congratulating his boss, he added: “I wouldn’t change any of his answers tonight.” By contrast, Mr Romney had looked “rattled”.
There was a shot of electricity through the debate hall when Mr Romney responded to allegations during a discussion of policy towards China that some of his own personal fortune was invested in Chinese companies, some engaged in making equipment for surveillance on its own policy. Striding over to Mr Obama he suggested that if he were to look at his own pension plan he would surely find some of that money invested in Chinese interests. But the President shut him down. “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours.”
Eric Fehrnstrom, top campaign advisor to Governor Romney, conceded it was a different Mr Obama on the stage, but said that didn’t change the record of the past four years. “The President was more strident, there is no question about that, but you cannot defend the indefensible,” he said. “Changing your style or changing your tone can’t change the facts of your record. I think that Governor Romney put it very well when he recited the list of horribles” of the Obama term, notably on the economy and joblessness.
If Mr Romney’s goal last night was to indict his opponent’s record in office, that of Mr Obama was to portray Mr Romney as unreliable and dishonest about his positions, saying he had deliberately fudged or recast them on issues ranging from immigration to providing contraception services to women and even his supposed embrace of coal as an energy source.
And he accused him of withholding details of what he would actually do once in office including on the economy.
“Governor Romney says he’s got a five-point plan,” the president declared. “Governor 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”.