Jacob Heilbrunn

Comeback: Obama versus Romney

Usually it is Mitt Romney who is accused of being a shape shifter. But last night President Obama radically altered his persona from the first to the second debate. The result was not a triumph but certainly a comeback for Obama, who succeeded in stopping Romney from painting him as a hapless weakling. Instead, as both contestants bleated on about the importance of the middle class (which will need to see a cut in entitlements, whether or not either candidate wants to say so or not), Obama got in a number of jabs about Romney as plutocrat. Romney's job was to try and move to the center; Obama's, to heighten the differences between the two and portray himself as the last defender of social programs that Romney would savage. The viciousness of the debate was further testament to the polarization of the electorate that has taken place. The debate lacked the kind of decorum that has marked previous ones, and the very attempts to score it show just how far American politics continues to devolve into theater. The hostility on both sides was barely kept in check, with Romney seething with anger and Obama casually contemptuous of his challenger.

Perhaps the main problem for Romney was that the new Romney had already debuted at the first debate. So the media focus was on Obama. Romney committed some blunders, but he hung tough. It was a brutal contest whose brutality will probably be exceeded in the  upcoming third debate over foreign affairs next week. If last night was anything to go by, the final debate could be very treacherous ground for Mitt Romney.

Romney veered close to the edge of disaster when he brought up Obama's greatest weakness, which is his handling of Libya. Romney was so fixated with nailing the president as soft on terrorism that he engaged in the "never" mistake—stating that Obama never indicated that an act of terrorism took place—without being dead certain that he was right. He was repeating propaganda, not facts, and he ended up hoisted by his own petard. Here was Romney:

I – I – I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.

MS. CROWLEY: It – he did in fact, sir.

Bluntly put, Romney got carried away in alleging that the president refused to state that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was an act of terror. He was rebuffed by both Obama and the debate moderator Candy Crowley, who did a good job of corralling the two combatants. Romney's better tack would have been to question why Obama got America mired in what amounted to a new war in the Middle East. There remains much that is unclear about Libya, but a similar mistake during the third debate could prove devastating to Romney.

Not surprisingly, Romney was at his strongest in focusing on Obama's performance on the economy. He landed some tough blows against Obama, particularly when it came to the trillions in budget deficits that he's accumulated over the past four years. But Romney should have pursued more aggressively his contention that "government does not create jobs." By spitting out those phrases toward the end of the debate, he risked making himself sound petulant and peevish. Romney also did not do a good job of detaching himself from the record of George W. Bush, which he had to counter. The question about the distinction between Bush and Romney amounted to a softball for Obama, who is continually drawing a direct link between the two. At the next debate Romney could face a simple question from the audience: "Why have you appointed so many neocons as advisers who led America into disastrous wars of choice in the Middle East?"

The bottom line, however, is that the election has tightened and that the debates may no longer significantly affect the results—barring a major gaffe by one of the candidates. Romney has recovered his dignity and become a plausible candidate after floundering for months. But the overall odds, as National Interest editor Robert W. Merry has often pointed out, remain stacked in Obama's favor—he's not mired in a losing war, the economy is haltingly recovering. All Obama needed was a draw last night, and he got more than that.

Image: Malwack