WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama appears to have made the greater gain in the second and latest presidential debate, according to a panel of experts, but not by much, leaving plenty of work to do for both candidates for the third and final debate next Monday.
Obama and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney went head-to-head in a town hall meeting at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Tuesday night.
President Obama, sharper, more engaging, and more energetic than in the first debate, challenged Romney on his contradictory statements and plans to fix the economy.
“Governor Romney says he’s got a five-point plan … He has a one-point plan,” Obama said, “and that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Romney, equally sharp and energized, focused on Obama’s four-year term, depicting the president as a poor economic manager.
“The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again,” said Romney.
Dr. Kathleen Kendall, research professor of Communication at the University of Maryland, said that Romney, as the challenger in the debate, needed to not only convince the audience that the Obama administration had failed, but also to sell a Romney administration.
“He did not succeed,” said Dr. Kendall.
“The charges about the weaknesses in the administration were answered,” she said adding, “but he certainly kept at it and was far better in outlining the faults of the administration than he was in discussing what he would do in any detail.”
Dr. Craig Smith, former speech writer for former President Gerald Ford and now professor of Communication Studies at California State University–Long Beach, described the debate as “high-level” and much closer than the first.
President Obama “began to get the better of things” in the second half, however, and Romney seemed to muddle his phrasing and quibbled with the moderator Candy Crowley over time allocations, according to Dr. Smith.
“For the president to say, ‘No, I am responsible, the buck stops with me,’ was very important.”
– Dr. Craig Smith, professor of Communication Studies at California State University–Long Beach
“Take your lumps and complain about it later, but you don’t quibble with the moderator,” added Dr. Smith.
The turning point happened when the security lapses that contributed to the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Sept. 11 in Benghazi were raised. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misleading the public by initially describing the attack as a protest against an anti-Muslim video.
Smith believes that moderator Candy Crowley influenced the debate and overstepped her role by validating Obama’s claim that he had called the Benghazi attack “an act of terror” the day after it occurred.
The president, however, reacted with integrity in taking responsibility as commander in chief and denouncing Republican attacks on his staff as “offensive,” according to Dr. Smith.
“For the president to say, ‘No, I am responsible, the buck stops with me,’ was very important,” said Dr. Smith.
Political scientist Dr. John Hudak, fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said that Obama’s response to the Benghazi issue was the highlight of the debate.
“The entire debate could have been lost over that answer and actually, I think it is the answer that won him the debate,” said Dr. Hudak.
Although this debate, after his lackluster performance in the first debate, has set Obama on more even-footing with Romney, it was challenging for both candidates, each scoring and taking hits.
Obama struggled to simplify and explain some issues, never fully explaining for example why gasoline has risen from around $1.85 per gallon four years ago to around $4 now.
“It was unresponsive both to the question and to Romney’s charge,” Dr. Smith said about the president’s response.
On the other hand, Obama made the most of having the last word, scoring points when he raised Romney’s controversial 47 percent statement. He also refuted accusations that he relied only on the government to create jobs. He was in favor of private industry and, repeating a campaign theme, said he believed that everyone should have a fair go and play by the rules.
Although introductions and conclusions were not allowed in the second debate, Obama “turned it into a conclusion,” to great effect, Dr. Kendall said of the president’s final words.
Romney, too, had his moments. He outperformed expectations but was also overly aggressive, talking over the moderator and the president.
“Romney’s aggression toward the president, his interrupting him, and his attempts to corner him—I think there are undecided voters who would see that as essentially an insult to the office,” Dr. Hudak said.
But Romney was also fluent in reeling out statistics and data with ease. For the first time, he articulated the deduction part of his tax plan, announcing that people would be able to deduct up to $25,000 across a range of areas, including home loans and charities.
“That is different to what he has told us before,” Dr. Smith said. “It is now clear, and we desperately needed that information so we could see how his tax plan was going to work.”
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