President Barack Obama delivered an energized and aggressive debate performance Tuesday night at a town hall in Hempstead, N.Y. – the second of three showdowns between the two candidates.
Everything about Mr. Obama’s performance at Hofstra University stood in contrast to a lacklustre outing only two weeks ago in Denver, Colo. He was sharp, quick, and crisp in his lines. And this time, no attack was left off the table. Here are the five most memorable.
‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt’
The bailout of the Detroit auto industry during the Great Recession is a key Obama administration achievement – one that it has trumpeted well before the presidential campaign got underway. It features prominently in Obama campaign literature, web sites and videos, and in TV ads.
It is also one of the reasons why Mitt Romney is struggling in Ohio. The northern part of the state, which supplies parts to the auto industry, benefited from the bailout.
There is perhaps a bigger reason why: Mr. Romney’s 2008 op-ed for the New York Times, with the headline Let Detroit Go Bankrupt, is an Obama campaign trail refrain. It is an effective and obvious line of attack – except the President did not deliver it during the first presidential debate.
Last night was different. Mr. Obama used the first question from a student, named Jeremy, who sought reassurance he would be able to find a job after graduation.
Mr. Obama reminded viewers that while Mr. Romney had argued against federal aid for car makers, the President had decided to “bet on American workers and American auto industry – and it’s come surging back.”
“He wanted to take them in to bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open – and we would have lost a million jobs. Don’t take my word for it, take the executives at GM and Chrysler – some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney – they’ll tell you his prescription wasn’t going to work.”
Attack one: check.
‘Pioneers of outsourcing’
Throughout the summer the Obama campaign targeted battleground states, like Ohio, with ads that linked Mr. Romney to the outsourcing of American jobs to foreign countries.
The aim was to leave the viewer with the impression that Mr. Romney was a part of the practice even if the evidence surrounding whether the former head of Bain Capital was personally involved was never proven.
Early in the second presidential debate, Mr. Obama delivered another attack – that Mr. Romney did not, in fact, have a five-point plan. Instead, it was a one-point plan “to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” said Mr. Obama.
For these Americans: “You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions and you still make money,” he added.
Later during an exchange about China, Mr. Obama was back at it.
“When he talks about getting tough on China, keep in mind that Governor Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China, and is currently investing in companies that are building surveillance equipment for China to spy on its own folks,” said President Obama.
“Governor, you’re the last person who’s going to get tough on China.”
The Bain Capital attack is old ground for the Obama-Biden campaign. But it was widely seen as a missed opportunity during the first presidential debate. On Tuesday night, the President did not miss a chance to draw attention to Mr. Romney’s business record.
These attacks will play well with the Democratic base and likely restore enthusiasm.
The Romney-Ryan tax plan calls for cutting income taxes for all Americans by 20 per cent – without adding to the deficit.
This would be possible, according to the campaign, because a Romney administration would eliminate certain credits and loopholes in the tax system.
The plan drives Democrats bananas – and many wished that Mr. Obama had pressed his rival harder during the first presidential debate for specifics: How does a plan that cuts taxes, maintains Bush-era tax cuts, and increases military spending not increase the deficit?
Former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention called it a simple matter of “arithmetic” – the Romney-Ryan plan does not add up.
On Tuesday night, there was a different strategy at work.
“If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, ‘Here, I want to spend seven or eight trillion dollars, 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,” said Mr. Obama.
For good measure, Mr. Obama also managed to sneak in a mention of Big Bird – mocking his rival’s reference of the Sesame Street character during the first presidential debate when he explained to moderator Jim Lehrer that he planned on cutting the subsidy to public broadcaster PBS, which airs the children’s program.
Mr. Romney said cutting such subsidies would help pay for his tax cuts.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond than Big Bird and funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that,” said Mr. Obama.
Pressure has been building for the president over the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which lead to the death of the U.S. ambassador and several diplomats.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Romney has been hammering away at the controversy – and polls show what was a large Obama advantage on foreign policy is now much smaller.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Romney once again criticized the Obama administration for its contradictory explanation of events, its failure to call it a terrorist attack until 14 days later, and its initial blaming an anti-Islam video as the impetus that resulted in a spontaneous protest eventually leading to the consulate attack. Mr. Romney also said it was troubling that the president attended a Las Vegas fundraiser the day after the attack on the anniversary of 9-11.
But it was Mr. Obama’s response to the Romney campaign critique that yielded the most forceful and passionate response of the night. Mr. Obama was visibly angry as he turned to Mr. Romney to address him directly:
“The suggestion that anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”
Mr. Romney stepped off his stool and picked up on what he thought was a contradiction in Mr. Obama’s claim that, on the day after the attack, he delivered a statement in the White House Rose Garden calling the attack an “act of terror.”
Indeed, the president had said so. However, Mr. Romney was unaware. “Get the transcript,” said Mr. Obama, sitting on his stool in a moment of reverse ‘gotcha’.
The Romney campaign is right to focus on the shifting explanations of Obama administration officials on what exactly happened in Benghazi. But on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama’s delivered a sharp counter-attack and Mr. Romney stumbled.
‘The 47 per cent’
No fact caused such agony to Democrats as Mr. Obama’s failure during the first presidential debate to work in a reference to Mr. Romney “47 per cent” comment.
After defending his secretly videotaped comments at a Republican fundraiser – calling them “inelegant” – Mr. Romney has since apologized for his comments.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama finally went there – and the timing of his attack could not have been shrewder.
After Mr. Romney used his closing statement to talk about how he would work for “100 per cent” of Americans, Mr. Obama used his closing statement to attack the former governor by inviting viewers to consider who Mr. Romney was referring to when speaking about the “47 per cent.”
“Folks on Social Security who have worked all their lives. Veterans who have 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 tax, but don’t make enough income,” said Mr. Obama.
“And I want to fight for them and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years… That’s why I’m asking for your vote and that’s why I’m asking for another four years,” he said, concluding the debate and leaving viewers to reflect on Mr. Romney’s “47 per cent” comment.
Mr. Obama saved his sharpest attack for very last minute of a debate that will likely help get his campaign back on track.