With his presidency on the line, Barack Obama delivered a forceful performance in the second presidential debate Tuesday night, chiding Mitt Romney for failing to provide specifics about his policies and painting the Republican nominee as a more conservative version of George W. Bush.
Those who predicted the town-hall format of the Hempstead, N.Y., debate would inhibit the candidates’ attacks on each other were mistaken. In several sharp exchanges, including an early tussle in which the two candidates abandoned their stools and circled each other like wary prizefighters, Obama and Romney tangled over energy, immigration, Libya and their respective plans to shepherd the nation through a sluggish recovery.
From the opening bell, Obama pressed his opponent, who was widely judged the victor of their first showdown. Gone was the passive bearing that plagued Obama in that skirmish. When Romney touted the merits of his plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama scolded him for its haziness.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics,” Obama said. “If somebody came to you with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 trillion or $8 trillion, and we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people. Because the math doesn’t add up.”
The former Massachusetts governor, whose commanding performance in Denver vaulted him into a virtual tie with three weeks to go before Election Day, had strong moments as well. He cast Obama’s four years in office in withering terms, pointing to the struggles of the middle class and stubbornly high unemployment, and he marshaled a case for why a second Obama term would be no different. “I think you know better,” he told a questioner who asked whether Obama could perform better if re-elected.
But Romney failed to match the dominance of his first debate, seeming peevish at Obama’s interruptions and appealing to debate moderator Candy Crowley for equal time. Asked directly by an audience questioner about where he deviated from Bush, Romney launched into a recitation of his five-point jobs plan, noting that Bush did not crack down on China, balance the budget or boost trade in Latin America, as Romney has pledged to do.
Obama seized on that question to position Romney to the right of the 43rd President. “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for ‘self-deportation.’ George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. So there are differences between Gov. Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy,” Obama said. “In some ways he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. I think that’s a mistake. That’s not how we’re going to move our economy forward.”
It’s unclear how much the debate will reshape a tight race with very few undecided voters. In an instant CBS News poll of uncommitted voters, 37% of respondents said Obama won the night, with 30% backing Romney and one-third characterizing the skirmish as a tie. For Obama, however, it was a performance brimming with the kind of fiery rhetoric his supporters were craving. The President has described himself in the past as a “fourth quarter player.” In crunch time of his last campaign, he sank a very big shot Tuesday night.