US liberals breath a sigh of relief as Tuesday night's debate reveals Obama's fighting spirit

Romney wasn't terrible, but Obama looked like a president that could be bearable on TV for a few more years. That can’t hurt.

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Before Tuesday night’s debate, the American liberal had settled into his natural state of cold, hopeless panic. At the risk of sounding like a politician, I saw this in voters from New Mexico to Kentucky to Wisconsin, who told me that the president “looked at his shoes” and “looked out of it” at the first debate. I even saw it on the Hofstra University campus, where Obama flacks and journalists for liberal magazines raised the possibility of a second Romney domination. He’s never been very good at debates. The folksy town hall is no place to take it to Romney’s solar plexus. Oy, how’s he going to talk about Libya?

It was a treacherous time for Obama. George W. Bush spent his entire presidency fighting off questions about his intellect. Obama hasn’t. But many conservatives consider this president an affirmative action hire who’s useless without a script. The black Republican Artur Davis, who’d backed Obama in 2008, came up with this response to Denver: “What a difference 90 minutes without a teleprompter makes!” For two weeks, Democrats risked this perception jumping from the fringe to the mainstream, like a bacterium finding a new host.

The president’s demeanor and quick answers fixed all of that. Most of the healing happened in the first 10 or so minutes of the debate, when Obama delivered a few answers with simple 1-2-3 counts and zeros pauses or – his crutch – elongated “aaaaaands.”

That tone let Obama endure the exchanges that Romney clearly won. When a black voter in the audience sighed that “I’m not that optimistic as I was in 2012,” Romney unloosed all the economic data in his head – “one out of six people in poverty,” and “47 million people on food stamps,” and “23 million Americans out of work.” It was as good as anything Romney offered in the first debate. The problem was that he was no longer debating a zombie.

How can any of this affect the race? Obama looked like a president that could be bearable on TV for a few more years. That can’t hurt. More importantly, Obama undid some of the good that Romney had done himself on “likeability” – up from a huge deficit to a tie since Denver. Romney did it to himself with a mostly bogus claim that he demanded “binders full of women” to even out the gender roles in Massachusetts government.

Obama heightened the differences with some subtle personal touches. When a Hispanic woman asked about immigration policy, an issue Obama’s been slow to address, he told her that “if my daughter or yours looks to somebody like they’re not a citizen, I don’t want — I don’t want to empower somebody like that.” Almost none of the American post-debate spin focused on that moment. But just days ago, liberals didn’t know if Obama was alert enough to deliver that kind of punch.

David Weigel is political correspondent at Slate

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