The unfocused, diffident President Obama who phoned in his first debate with Mitt Romney two weeks ago did not show up Tuesday night. Replacing him was a forceful, even feisty, politician who defended his record and identified the contradictions in his challenger’s shifting positions. Viewers got a good idea of the differences between the nominees.
During this week’s town-hall encounter, the President debunked the 11th-hour pivot to the political center that Mr. Romney made in the first debate. He noted that the GOP nominee’s positions on such issues as immigration reform, Social Security changes, and federal funding of Planned Parenthood are to the right of the stances taken by Republican President George W. Bush.
Mr. Romney’s strongest argument remains that President Obama’s four years in office have not produced adequate economic improvement. That indictment ignores the President’s work to save the U.S. auto industry — a matter of particular importance to Ohio and Michigan — but few Americans likely are satisfied with the overall pace of recovery.
Mr. Romney repeated his assertion in this week’s debate that the nation “just can’t afford four more years like the last four years.” He properly challenged Mr. Obama to be more forthcoming on how he would improve the economy, create jobs, and reform entitlement programs in a second term.
But Mr. Obama’s strongest rebuttal was that Mr. Romney’s economic plan — big across-the-board tax rate cuts, increased military spending, and a balanced budget with major deficit reduction, all without raising the tax burden on the middle class or unduly reducing it on the richest Americans — is arithmetically impossible, not just in the President’s view, but also in the opinion of outside experts.
Until Mr. Romney is prepared to tell Americans exactly which tax deductions and credits he plans to eliminate to pay for his plan, his bland assurance at the debate that “of course [the numbers] add up” lacks credibility. Merely reciting his credentials as a private businessman doesn’t settle matters.
The President reminded viewers of Mr. Romney’s callous characterization of “47 percent” of Americans as irresponsible freeloaders who are addicted to government benefits. He appealed to women voters by contrasting his action on pay equity with the GOP nominee’s lack of it.
Mr. Romney correctly noted that the President did not keep his campaign promise to offer a proposal for immigration reform early in his term. But Mr. Obama countered by observing that Mr. Romney has aligned himself with the most nativist elements of his party, calling on undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” and rejecting such reasonable measures as the Dream Act.
Mr. Romney repeated the canard that Mr. Obama took two weeks to define the attack on the American consulate in Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats, as a terrorist act. The President responded — and debate moderator Candy Crowley affirmed — that he made that characterization the day after the attack. The exchange again suggested Mr. Romney’s opportunism in politicizing a tragedy.
Disappointingly, both candidates ducked such sensitive issues as gun control, climate change, and the looming “fiscal cliff.” Next week’s final debate will give both nominees the opportunity to express their ideas on foreign policy.
For now, though, the advantage Mr. Romney gained in the first debate has largely dissipated. The election is again a contest between two energetic, fully engaged competitors, and such determination can only serve voters well.