The structure of that answer will be studied and go down in debate lore [update: text below]. The voter's question: what misconception does the public have about you that you would like to correct? (Good question, by the way.) Romney's answer: I care about 100% of the people. True in its way. Obama's...what's lovely is that a direct answer to the question was the perfect segue to the contrast. The misconception about me, he said, is that I want government to do it all -- and he was eloquent in affirming his belief in private enterprise and in government as midwife, hand up. Then, the pivot: Romney is a good man. But. In that private room, he said what he said...and Obama ticked off beautifully the groups who don't pay income taxes: seniors, students, soldiers.
Unlike in the last debate, that denouement cemented a theme he had hit all night: that Romney believes that helping the richest helps the economy. I was thinking that that core point had been made but was a bit effaced, until that closer.
In this debate, roles were reversed: Obama was the one ticking off 4-point plans and looking forward. Nothing new, but he made plans for the long term also serve as plans for the present. On the first question -- a student asking what each would do to ensure that he'd be able to support himself upon graduating -- it was Obama who ticked off a four-point plan while Romney merely asserted repeatedly that he'd create jobs without explaining how. This time, too, Obama got him on the fact that his tax plan didn't add up -- though in truth, he did that just fine in the first debate as well. Romney bulled through in rebuttal, asserting that he would do what he said he'd do - -but he didn't say how, and Crowley effectively teamed with Obama to highlight that. And he contrasted his "balanced" deficit reduction plan effectively with Romney's budget-busting tax cuts and defense hikes.
Obama also managed to make concrete the claim that his trade policies had boosted manufacturing: by signing the right kind of free trade deals, boosting energy production -- and winning trade cases brought against China and other countries before the WTO. He effectively countered the weak-on-China charge by boasting that his administration had brought many more such cases than predecessors had -- and that China's currency had appreciated 11%. Not much, maybe, but it went unanswered
Two things concerned me a bit. Romney seems to be better at keeping track of assertions he wants to rebut and ticking them off. Obama let Romney say three times that he had doubled the deficit, never mentioning that he in fact reduced it. Similarly, he did not rebut the claim that he had quadrupled the rate of regulation, when he's actually issued new regulations at a pace somewhat slower than Bush's. There were other unanswered Romney lies. But not as many as last time.
Second problem: Romney at times physically dominated exchanges -- ran over everyone in interruption battles, walked forward and kept talking until Obama sat down. I of course wanted to kill him, and I hope that more people regarded that posturing as bullying than as use of proportionate force.
More important, though, Obama was in full command of his facial expressions and voice. He locked in on questioners; he was forceful and focused. On Libya he had basically no substantive defense but he played the commander-in-chief role to the hilt -- taking "responsibility" without detailing any error or defending admin decisions, speaking of his connection with diplomats in harm's way, asserting repeatedly that the U.S. would pursue the perpetrators, taking offense at Romney's "political" attacks (fair enough with regard to Romney's ridiculous initial foray, not so much re later criticism). Romney also blew this round by seguing to a mishmash attack on Obama's middle east policy, a kind of quick-cram parody of Ryan's thin but more methodically stated critique.
I believe that Obama did what he had to do. And Crowley was the best moderator we've had by far -- not imposing her agenda, but in very well-placed followup questions pushing the candidates on their evasions.
Update: seems like everyone considers Obama's c-in-c moment re Libya the pivot. Maybe, in theatrical terms, which I don't want to underestimate. But I doubt Romney gets much traction from the weakness-abroad attack route anyway (so far, that is, and tonight he jumbled it) -- and Libya is not a core concern for most voters. Again, it's the debate closer that I hope will sink deep. The attack on Romney's 47% comments was so effective because it didn't come off as mere point-scoring; it was sandwiched between two eloquent statements of Obama's own view of the role of government aid, and it was cushioned by the "good man" disclaimer. Here is the closing response in full:
Barry, I think a lot of this campaign, maybe over the last four years, has been devoted to this notion that I think government creates jobs, that that somehow is the answer. That's not what I believe.The concession to Romney's "goodness" was also effective because it played off Romney's own protestation that he cares about 100%. There's no contradiction. He can "care," be a "good man," and still believe that half the country is composed of dependents who need to be remade my a less supportive society. The contrast with a view of government programs as hand-up not handout could not be more sharply drawn.
I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy is grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.
And — and that is part of what's at stake in this election. There's a fundamentally different vision about how we move our country forward. I believe Governor Romney is a good man. He loves his family, cares about his faith.
But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams, soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now, people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.
And when my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a GI Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country, and I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That's why I'm asking for your vote and that's why I'm asking for another four years.
Update 2: another good moment for Obama just bubbled up. It's late, so I'll let my tweet serve:
BTW, did O not crush it when he said that women's health issues were economic issues? Haven't seen that bruited much.
Done in by friendly fire? Dead-blogging the Denver debate