HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The difference was clear: President Obama showed up for the debate Tuesday night, forceful, energetic, on the attack, prepared with zingers and sound bites, fighting for his political life. Mitt Romney often responded in kind.
Forcefully defending his health care plan and his economic policies, Obama left behind his listless Denver persona. He found a way to attack Romney in the midst of his responses, calling the former Massachusetts governor “extreme,” reprising Romney’s videotaped comment denigrating 47 percent of Americans as essentially income-tax freeloaders, and mocking him for providing budget-cutting specifics about such things as federal funding for PBS’s Big Bird and Planned Parenthood.
Romney, in turn, pounded Obama for the slow economic recovery, saying the president doesn’t have any new policies to improve things in the next four years. Assertive and sometimes argumentative, the Republican nominee at one point suggested Obama preferred protecting a handful of birds rather than let oil projects go forward. (Obama insisted he supports energy development.)
But as this marathon of a campaign nears an end, the self-styled “town hall” debate is also likely to be remembered for the pain expressed by so many of the questioners, testimony to the fallout of the Great Recession. A student asked how he could get a job after graduation. A man lamented the high price of gas. Another man suffering economic difficulties questioned why he should support the president again.
Such pain has defined this election, and the question on the floor in this debate was clear: Which candidate can apply a political and economic salve to heal the wounds in the years to come? It was a pain acknowledged at the forum at Hofstra University by both candidates, each of whom tried, through the prism of their plans, to argue that they had a pathway to prosperity.
Obama summarized his argument when he sought to remind voters of what he considers his accomplishments, including Wall Street regulations, the bailout of the auto industry, an energy policy that relies on all sources, and the creation of 5 million jobs.
“Now, does that mean you’re not struggling? Absolutely not. A lot of us are,” the president told the audience in one of several feel-your-pain moments. Then he pivoted, as he sought to do throughout the night, to why voters should stick with him: “And that’s why the plan that I’ve put forward for manufacturing and education, and reducing our deficit in a sensible way, using the savings from ending wars, to rebuild America and putting people back to work . . . all of those things will make a difference, so the point is the commitments I’ve made, I’ve kept.”
Romney’s retort throughout the night was an examination of the Obama record, which he found dismal. Making his central argument, Romney said, “The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again. He keeps saying, ‘Look, I’ve created 5 million jobs’ That’s after losing 5 million jobs. The entire record is such that the unemployment has not been reduced in this country. The unemployment, the number of people who are still looking for work, is still 23 million Americans.”
While there was considerable discussion of tax and budget policies, there was little emphasis on some of the biggest pieces of the federal pie that might have to be sliced to eliminate the deficit, including Social Security and Medicare.
Instead, viewers might have been surprised how much time was spent discussing the Chinese currency, which Romney argued had been manipulated and thus has cost American jobs. Obama at one point said that some jobs that have gone to China are not coming back because they are low-wage jobs, in contrast to the high-wage jobs the president said he wanted to create.
In the end, the president emphasized a strategy that his campaign previewed in an advertisement released Monday that quoted Americans saying the economy is improving. “Stick with this guy,” a voter says at the end of the ad. “He will move us forward.”
That strategy comes at a time when a poll released this week by The Washington Post and ABC News said that only 42 percent of those surveyed said they believe the country is on the “right track,” a level that normally would not bode well for the reelection chances of an incumbent. Yet it was a significant improvement from the 29 percent who said in mid-August the country was on the right track.
Romney’s theme was that a switch in direction is necessary, and he suggested that Obama’s idea is all about spending more federal money to try to revive the economy. “Government does not create jobs,” Romney said.
Obama retorted that he, too, didn’t believe government created jobs but also said that he supported policies that give everyone “a fair shot.”
The last question of the night begged for a revealing moment: What misperception would each man like to clarify about himself?
Romney used the question as an opportunity to address the secret video recording of him saying that 47 percent of Americans viewed themselves as victims and didn’t take personal responsibility — a matter that the moderator, the questioners, and Obama (up to that point) had not raised.
“I care about 100 percent of the American people,” Romney said, noting that he served as a Mormon missionary and as a church leader in Massachusetts, which he said put in touch with ordinary people with real problems.
Obama seized the opening. In his closing statement — the last of the night, making it impossible for Romney to issue a rebuttal — the president reminded viewers about what Romney “behind closed doors” said about 47 percent of Americans.
In the end, Obama seemed to score just about every blow he probably wished he had made in the first debate. As important as his words might have been on how he will continue to fight for those who are suffering, his passionate delivery perhaps resonated more.
Romney, meanwhile, hardly endured the kind of humiliating defeat that Obama did in Denver. He mostly stood his ground, and he is not likely to hear Republicans publicly criticize his performance.
That probably means this seesaw of a contest remains tight, with one final debate, and perhaps a last chance at a knockout blow, coming on Monday in Florida.Michael Kranish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @GlobeKranish