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A feisty Obama hits back at Romney in second debate

After his lacklustre showing in the first debate, the stakes were high for President Barack Obama going into the second face-off against Mitt Romney. The consensus among experts and viewers alike was that he rose to the occasion.


After an anaemic performance in the first debate seemed to cost Barack Obama his lead in the polls, all eyes were on the president Tuesday night as he squared off against Republican Mitt Romney in the second of three televised match-ups.

The consensus among pundits, analysts, and viewers surveyed after the event was that the president rose to the occasion.

Often said to be best when his back is up against the wall, Obama was indeed in feisty form at the "town hall" face-off that had the two candidates responding to questions posed by undecided voters in Long Island, New York. A slew of polls conducted (by CNN, CBS, PPP, Google, and CNBC) just after Obama and Romney left the stage indicated that viewers thought the president won decisively.

‘The president won this debate’


Romney, who was widely praised for his authoritative performance in the first debate, landed several punches, aiming with particular focus at Obama’s economic record. But with the race appearing to be deadlocked just three weeks before Election Day, and the Republican recently seen as having the momentum, Obama’s assured and assertive showing came as a relief to Democrats.

“Obama did much, much better than in the first debate,” said Ari Berman, an author and political correspondent for prominent left-wing magazine The Nation. “His answers were crisp, he attacked Romney effectively and he projected much better in the town hall format.”

Right-leaning analysts, like John Fortier of Washington DC think tank Bipartisan Policy Center, were more measured in their assessment. “They were both pretty good,” Fortier offered. “The president was effective, and more active where he was passive before.”

Even on a question about the White House’s much-criticised response to recent anti-American violence in Libya, a clear vulnerability for the president, Obama “came off as a commander in chief and showed seriousness”, Fortier said. Romney, on the other hand, “wasn’t as strong as he could have been on that question”, though he otherwise “looked presidential and made a strong case against the president”, according to Fortier.

Despite the more congenial format, with the candidates addressing voters directly and moving freely about the stage, both Romney and Obama seemed eager to insert sharp jabs into their answers to questions on issues like gas prices, taxes, gender equality, gun control, and foreign policy.

Romney repeatedly said that the middle class had been “buried” or “crushed” by four years of Obama, alleged that the president’s foreign policy in the Middle East amounted to “an apology tour”, and urged voters to distinguish between Obama’s “rhetoric and his policies”.

The president, meanwhile, remarked that Romney was more extreme on social issues than George Bush, accused the Republican of “playing politics” on the Libya situation, and said that voters could not trust a man who described 47% of the US population as “victims” (referring to a leaked video of comments Romney made to fundraisers).

Obama also did not hesitate to enumerate his accomplishments, touting the healthcare overhaul, Wall Street regulation reform, tax cuts for middle-class families and small businesses and his counterterrorism successes (especially the killing of bin Laden), among others.

According to Dr. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, “the president won this debate over Romney”, though he added that it was not as “decisive” as Romney’s triumph in the first face-off. Still, Sabato said, “Obama did much, much better in the second debate…his answers were crisper and his criticisms of Mitt Romney more pointed”. As for Romney, the Republican “got his shots in too, although he also stumbled at times”.

But will it make a difference?

Democrats may be thrilled that their president brought some fire to this round, calling out his opponent for a lack of policy specifics and painting him as out-of-touch, but it remains unclear whether polls that have recently been trending toward Romney will now reverse course.

Just several weeks ago, many pundits were insisting that debates generally have a negligible effect on the election. But Romney's strong performance in the first match-up, and Obama's surprisingly weak one, has been credited with turning the race on its head, and not even an encouraging jobs report (released on October 5) was able to stop a surge of support for the Republican.

According to Sabato, the second presidential debate will likely serve to excite the party faithful on both sides. “Now [Obama] will probably get Democrats re-energised about his candidacy, which is vitally important in what should be an electoral battle of the bases,” Sabato predicted. “Meanwhile, Romney’s performance was certainly…more than enough to keep Republicans engaged as well.”

The final debate, scheduled for October 22, will focus on foreign policy. It will be one of the last chances Obama and Romney get to motivate their supporters and sway the uncommitted voters that may end up deciding what is likely to be a nail-biter of an election.

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