President Obama might have saved his campaign at Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Not that his performance was all that great.
At the first presidential debate two weeks ago, Obama seemed prickly and disengaged. This time around, he retired the arrogant grin and delivered his lines with force. He did voters the courtesy of bringing his A game, instead of conceited complacency. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, went from confident and affable two weeks ago to defensive and pushy Tuesday night. He often sounded flustered, even repeatedly arguing petty points of procedure with moderator Candy Crowley. By the end of the debate, members of the audience clapped after Crowley called Romney on a fact he got wrong.
Obama also did a better job hitting Romney on a few matters of substance. The president calmly added up the numbers in Romney’s mathematically-challenged tax plan, insisting that Romney the investor would never accept such a “sketchy” deal. Romney’s response to the criticism of his numbers was about as convincing as his usually are: “Of course they add up,” he insisted, following that with no plausible reason to believe him.
On substance, however, Obama still only looked great relative to Romney’s unrealistic tax plan.
Sure, Obama mentioned health care and some of his first-term’s best but lesser-known accomplishments, such as streamlining the federal student-loan program and raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.
But, despite a lengthy detour into energy policy, Obama didn’t mention climate change, let alone the best ways to address the problem. Instead he promised to waste more money on “clean coal” and on a poorly-designed wind subsidy.
Obama touted increased production of oil and natural gas during his first term. It’s nice that he didn’t prevent this from happening, but he can’t reasonably take credit for the technological and market shifts that enabled it.
In a bizarre moment, Obama made it seem as though a handful of tax credits is the key to economic growth.
And the president offered nothing more about how he would reshape the federal budget to pay for his investments in manufacturing, education and infrastructure. As usual, Obama just promised to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on the wealthy, which alone would not do the job, and spoke broadly about fairness.
For the Obama camp, this was a win that could well halt the momentum Romney had until now. The president certainly reignited his base and probably reassured wavering undecided voters. But it wasn’t the exemplary performance some are claiming.