President Barack Obama, seeking to recharge his candidacy, made a spirited defense of his record as he challenged Republican rival Mitt Romney last night on taxes, immigration and Libya.
Bringing a combative style to their second debate in place of the lackluster performance he delivered at the first face-off, Obama branded Romney’s fiscal plans “sketchy” and his social policies “extreme,” as he worked to keep the former Massachusetts governor on the defensive three weeks from Election Day.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for” his tax cut and spending plans, Obama said before a debate audience of 82 uncommitted voters at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. As a former private equity investor, Obama added, turning to face Romney: “You wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people -- because the math doesn’t add up.”
The Republican nominee, seeking to sustain a campaign bounce he has been riding since the Oct. 3 debate, said the president was mischaracterizing his proposals, and pressed his central campaign theme that Obama has failed to foster the economic recovery the nation needs.
“More debt and less jobs -- I’m going to change that,” Romney, 65, said of Obama’s record. “It’s not going to be like the last four years. The middle class has been crushed the last four years.”
Obama, 51, criticized for appearing distracted and disengaged at the first debate in Denver, leaned forward in his chair and leapt to his feet last night on the theater-in-the-round-style stage, interrupting Romney six times in the first half of the 90-minute debate to interject: “Not true.”
The president had his most forceful moment when the conversation turned to his administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador -- an edge enhanced when Romney mischaracterized the president’s initial response to the tragedy.
“It took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney said, adding, that Obama’s team “indicated this was a reaction to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.”
Rose Garden Remarks
“Get the transcript,” Obama said, adding that he went to the Rose Garden outside the White House the day after the attack to brand the assault a terrorist act. Debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN interjected to side with Obama, saying he “did in fact” use those words.
Toward the end of Obama’s Sept. 12 remarks from the Rose Garden, he said: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” It was not clear whether he was referring to the attack in Benghazi or to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which Obama said were being remembered on the day of the attack in Benghazi.
Almost two weeks later, in a taped appearance on ABC’s “The View,” Obama declined to call the assault in Benghazi an act of terrorism before an investigation was complete. “We don’t have all the information yet, and we’re still gathering it,” he said in that interview.
In the debate, Obama also said he takes responsibility for lax security that enabled the attack and that he took personal offense at Romney’s charge. The suggestion that “anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”
Polls nationally and in politically competitive states showed the two contenders in a tightening contest for the White House heading into the second debate.
Romney was leading Obama among both likely and registered voters in Gallup’s daily tracking poll. Among likely voters, the Republican is ahead, 51 percent to 45 percent, and among registered voters, he has a 48 percent to 46 percent advantage. Romney’s lead among registered voters is his first since August, before the national political conventions. The surveys were taken Oct. 10-16 and have margins of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Instant surveys suggested that Obama won last night’s exchange. Thirty-seven percent of uncommitted voters in a CBS News poll said Obama was the victor, while 30 percent said Romney was, and a third called it a draw.
Obama “started right out of the box demonstrating he wasn’t going to have a repeat of last time and closed very strongly with an indictment of Romney,” said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who called the Libya exchange “the big moment” of the evening.
“Romney was trying for these ‘gotcha’ moments, it seemed, when he was trying to prosecute the president and cross-examine him on the stage, and it got the better of him,” Devine said.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said the debate was “almost a draw” that would equalize the race and elevate the importance of the next showdown focusing on foreign affairs on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
“It does not stop the Romney momentum, while Obama has now stopped the bleeding and is stabilizing, meaning that this third debate is going to be crucial,” Bonjean said.
While the exchange did little to illuminate new proposals from either candidate, it gave them opportunities to spar on major issues that could move the election.
Obama criticized Romney for opposing the federal bailout of the U.S. auto industry, saying, “when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt, I said we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry, and it’s come surging back.”
When Romney contended he had supported “precisely” the course the president “ultimately” took -- a managed bankruptcy -- Obama countered: “What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” saying his prescription would have cost 1 million jobs.
Romney wrote in a Nov. 19, 2008, op-ed in the New York Times, under the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” that if the federal government put up money to rescue General Motors and Chrysler, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.”
He argued instead for a bankruptcy process without any federal funds -- something that Republicans and Democrats have said wasn’t feasible since there was no entity at the time willing to provide the money that would have been needed to prop up the companies while they reorganized.
In an exchange over tax policy, Romney defended his plans, saying of his fiscal policies, “Of course they add up,” and exhorting voters to make the election a referendum on Obama’s first term.
“You know that these last four years haven’t been so good as the president just described, and that you don’t feel like you’re confident that the next four years are going to be much better either,” he said. “If you were to elect President Obama, you know what you’re going to get -- you’re going to get a repeat of the last four years.”
In the closing weeks of an election in which both campaigns have competed for the backing of female voters, women’s issues played an outsized role at the debate.
Romney answered a question on pay equity for women by recounting how as Massachusetts governor, presented with an all-male slate of applicants for cabinet positions, he asked women’s groups to help find female applicants and was given “whole binders full of women.”
Obama responded that Romney, who is proposing to end funding for the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood and has backed legislation to allow employers to decide whether to offer contraceptive coverage, was not offering “the kind of advocacy that women need.”
Romney criticized Obama for having failed to deliver on his 2008 campaign promise to overhaul immigration laws, even as the Republican said he supported action the president has long advocated, to give the children of illegal immigrants the chance to stay in the country legally, known as the Dream Act.
“Why did he fail to even promote legislation that would have provided an answer for those that want to come legally and for those that are here illegally today?” Romney said. “This president should have honored his promise.”
Obama attributed his failure to Republicans’ refusal to “get serious” on an immigration revamp, and reminded voters that Romney took a hard line stance on the issue during the Republican primary, including promising to veto the Dream Act and calling for policies that would lead to “self-deportation.”
“His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, ‘We’re going to encourage self-deportation’ -- making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave,” Obama said.