When the evening began, one observation dominated the conversation: “If President Barack Obama has another debate like the last one, the election’s over.”
When the evening ended, I was struck by a different thought: If Obama had performed this way at the first debate, the election would have been over.
In every debate, whatever the format, whatever the questions, there is one and only one way to identify the winner: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? More often than not on Tuesday night, I think, Obama had the better of it.
From a substantive view, there was one argument that the president was seeking to make over and over: Don’t let Mitt Romney fool you; he’s a rich guy out to protect the interests of the well-off, not the middle-class.
That’s why he referenced not just Romney’s tax plan, but Romney’s taxes, the fact that the Republican presidential nominee paid a lower rate on his millions than ordinary working-class folks do on theirs, the fact that Romney has invested heavily in China. And when Romney went at Obama with almost the exact same argument he used so devastatingly against Newt Gingrich—“have you checked your pension?”—Obama came back with, “I haven’t looked at my pension; it’s not as big as yours. (For super-wonks it harked back to a 1982 debate between Mario Cuomo and the super-wealthy Lew Lehrman, when Cuomo reached over, grabbed Lehrman’s hand, and said, “Nice watch, Lou!”)
As a tactical matter, Obama executed one of the toughest of maneuvers: the counterpunch. When Romney attacked Obama for hindering the use of coal, the President recalled an appearance of Romney as governor of Massachusetts, where he vowed to shut down a coal-fired power plant. (The fact that Romney was probably right about the danger will be the subject of earnest substantive post-debate analyses that have no place here!)
And in talking about an area where the Obama administration has clear vulnerabilities—the attack on the American consulate in Libya—Obama summoned the inherent high ground of the presidency to condemn the “politicization” of the attack.
To be clear: There was nothing particularly off about Romney. He had several strong moments, most especially contrasting what Obama said he would do in 2008 with what in fact had happened over the past four years. This was, and is, the single most powerful argument against returning Obama to the White House, and Romney deployed it effectively.
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It’s just that Obama found what he could not find in Denver—a coherent thread to make the case that he understands the middle-class in a way Romney does not. For those Democratic partisans wondering where “the 47 percent” argument was, Obama was saving it for the close which—because of a pre-debate coin flip—Romney could not answer. In this sense, it was like Reagan’s famous “are you better off?” question from 1980.
In a larger sense, however, Obama’s success is unlikely to have anything like the impact of that 1980 debate, nor will it likely alter the terrain of the campaign as the first debate of 2012 did. Had the Obama of this debate showed up two weeks ago, he might well have ended Romney’s effort to present himself as a credible alternative to the president.
That opportunity vanished that night. While it’s clear that Obama’s performance will revive the enthusiasm of his supporters, it seems unlikely that it will cause those impressed by Romney to reconsider. Like they say in show business, timing is everything.