Both candidates employed the same tactic: empathize with the questioner, then pivot with a vengeance. But their strategies were very different. Romney pressed one big point: Obama’s policies and intentions should be judged by their sorry outcomes, including high gas prices, slow job creation, increased poverty, doubled deficits, etc. Obama jabbed repeatedly on a variety of smaller charges: Romney’s personal wealth, his tax rate, his foreign investments, his offshore investments, his opposition to Planned Parenthood. Most of the accusations made by both men were not effectively rebutted.
How did the strategies work? The reaction of flash polls and focus groups seemed pretty fair. Obama probably won the debate on points. But Romney impressed viewers more on key issues, including who would better handle the economy.
This outcome highlights a continuing Obama challenge. His first debate was not only lifeless, it was visionless. Neither during the Denver debate, nor in his convention speech, did Obama provide a credible, policy-oriented explanation of why the next four years will be better than the last. In this political cycle, voters are not rooting for continuity. They are looking for change. It is not impossible or unprecedented for an incumbent to position himself as an agent of change. But Obama hasn’t yet managed it.
The town hall debate did little to help in this regard. At Hofstra, Obama met his most immediate need – appearing that he is in it to win it. But he did not solve his largest problem – the conspicuous absence of a positive, hopeful, forward-looking message of economic change.
This sets up a final debate on foreign policy that may be both comfortable and frustrating for Obama. At Hofstra, Obama’s foreign policy responses were stronger than Romney’s, even in areas were Obama’s achievements are weak. But a foreign policy debate is not a good place to finally develop a compelling economic message, which is the largest gap in Obama’s campaign.