A fortnight ago, Mitt Romney one the first presidential debate by a much bigger margin than expected. Last night, Barack Obama won the second debate by a much bigger margin than expected. But because that first presidential debate was an outlier, and polls swung so decisively against Obama immediately afterwards, the president still has some major catching up to do. That’s a weird position for a favourite to be in. But this is a weird election.
Overall, Obama defeated Romney on likeability (which increasingly seems to me to be the factor that could swing this election), policy substance, and foreign affairs. But Romney proved his calibre on economic issues with customary zeal, and the fact that Obama’s mention of the notorious 47 per cent remarks – saved right until the end so that Romney couldn’t respond – didn’t go down brilliantly with swing voters will be a blow to his campaign.
The biggest moment from last night was Romney’s lamentable failure over Libya. His campaign blatantly exploited the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens for selfish and personal political gain. Obama described this as “offensive”, and rightly so, though he owes moderator Candy Crowley a beer for her inappropriate corrective against Romney, telling him on the record that he was wrong about whether Obama described what happened as an act of terror.
Elsewhere, Romney was again impressive on the economy, if vague. He says that he will create twelve million jobs in four years – but how? And yet his zeal, panache and private equity polish when talking about job creation means this is a weak spot for the President and will remain so. As the snap polls show, Romney still scores more highly on the economy, tax and healthcare.
As Ross Douthat notes, however, he didn’t come across as the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. For Americans, this really matters (it got George W Bush elected twice, crazily). At two points last night, Romney rather laboriously argued with Crowley about the rules; and we are getting familiar now with his habit of seeking what Douthat calls an “alpha-male moment”, such as that absurd $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during the primaries.
My sense is that the Obama campaign’s tactic of going hard and early in its negative portrayal of Romney, suggesting he is an out-of-touch plutocrat long before the 47 per cent remarks, is likely to be vindicated. I’ve written before that this is a “jobs vs justice” election, with Romney saying he’ll create lots of jobs even if that means bankrupting companies – something he’s good at – and Obama saying that he is a champion of the middle-class.
Last night, with energy and compassion, Obama played to this theme. That he won, amid signs of mild improvement in the economy, suggests it is the right track for him. We won’t know to what extent until around a week from now, when polls show how swing voters are feeling.
In the meantime, a word of advice for the president’s team. Their man still doesn’t have a persuasive answer to the question “Why will the second term be any different?” Therefore he should spend much, much more time talking about the last Republican administration. Voters think in longer cycles than political anoraks; and as Bill Clinton showed during the Democrat convention, Bush junior remains the best weapon Obama has. He was the candidate of Change once, and shouldn’t forget why, precisely because the American people haven’t.