President Obama, after a dreadful showing two weeks ago during debate #1 where he was listless, aloof, and unwilling to engage in debate, found his footing again Tuesday night in Hempstead, NY. He came out swinging, and never let up. It wasn't a perfect showing, as he missed a couple of key opportunities to attack Mitt Romney on the economy while touting his own record. Having him show up with his game face on, with his usual cool demeanor, and with a solid command of facts and reality was a sorely-needed shot in the arm for his supporters. In particular, Andrew Sullivan stepped back off his ledge after going a bit mad after the Denver debate.
Far better writers and commentators than I have written millions of words already about the specific moments in the debate where Obama gained the upper hand. For example, right off the bat, when he said that Romney wanted the auto industry to fail without the means to stay open for business, you knew that Obama meant business. And this was just the tip of his iceberg. Romney's titanic tirade of tall tales (I like that!) continued throughout the debate. Time and again, Obama called Romney's assertions "not true," or simply slammed him with the real Mitt Romney (he of the "one-point plan" and "sketchy" deals). When Obama stood up to Romney over the suggestion that Obama and his team misled the country over what had happened in Libya, his indignation was justified, and he took exactly the right tone to put Romney in his place. From that point forward, Romney acted like a petulant child, and made some really bad choices in what he said and/or suggested. When Romney said that two-parent households helped reduce gun violence, suggesting that single-parent households were responsible for the increases in gun violence, my wife's ears pricked up and she got pissed. Had I been Romney at that moment, I'd have gone back to my stool, pulled off my wing-tips and shoved both feet into my mouth.
For Romney, it was a frustrating evening, and it showed all over his face and in his body language. He scored pretty well when hitting Obama on the economy because, well, Obama's performance on the economy has not pleased many people and is a politically weak area for him. Romney would do well to continue hammering on jobs, deficits, and debt. But because he has been exposed for failing to spell out how, specifically, he would make changes to the Obama policy, he needs to start backing up his criticisms with real ideas. I don't hear vision from him -- he's not a visionary person, he's a problem-solver -- and in the final debate, which deals with foreign policy issues, he'll need to lay it all out there for everyone to see if he wants to build on his considerable post-Denver momentum. I'm sure his people are busily drafting and crafting away at his message, slowly moving him toward a moderate position.
For Obama's part, he definitely is missing some key elements to his second term agenda. I don't particularly believe that he's got nothing but more of the same (that would be politically suicidal), but he needs to show from this point forward where he will change things up. He knows he's got to deal with a Congress that will become even more intransigent and obstructionist. If the GOP gains seats in the Senate, with or without gaining a majority, you'll see even more gridlock. Obama, a former state and US Senator, was content during his first term to let the Legislative Branch do its job, but even with a filibuster-proof Senate majority and a giant House majority for six months, very little got done in a bipartisan fashion. Now, a lot of this can be attributed to certain rules in the two legislative bodies that give individual members the power to hold up votes, block judge nominations, and filibuster without actually standing at the microphone. But most of it is due to the FACT that the GOP set out from the beginning to deny Obama re-election, damn the torpedoes and screw the whole country! Despite this massive blockade, Obama passed key legislation that empowers the middle class and guarantees Americans access to healthcare. I think the public Obama who showed up in Hempstead Tuesday night needs to be the public Obama now and all through his second term, calling out Republicans for not telling the truth, for being inconsistent with past positions, and for putting their party before the well-being of the country. No matter what the GOP says in response to that, they can't deny that they want power before they'll lift a finger to help Americans.
To counter Romney's tack to the center, Obama also needs to tell anyone who is listening that we simply do not know who Mitt Romney is. Up until right after the GOP convention, all we've heard from Romney is about what a "severe conservative" he is, about the 47% of the country with whom he doesn't want to be bothered, and about his support for nearly every hard-right policy in the Republican platform. Of course, we know from his days as governor of Massachusetts that he held a moderate position on a lot of issues, including reproductive choice, which is why so many in the Republican base were wary of his conservative bona fides. So he tacked to the right for over a year, sewed up the nomination, and is now tacking back to the center. Obama needs to fashion a theme similar to, "Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?" or "Who are you, sir, and what have you done with the real Mitt Romney?" Mitt Romney truly has been whatever he's needed to be at any given moment to gain voters. He's a populist and an opportunist of the worst kind, asserting "core" convictions so powerfully that people forget that he's a monumental panderer and flip-flopper.
Did Obama stop the freefall in the polls? Probably, but we won't really know yet until more polling is done. There were plenty of people who thought Romney had either won or fought to a draw, which tells me and should tell the President that he still has a lot of work to do.