If President Obama needed a win — any kind of win, by any margin — in last night’s presidential debate, maybe he can claim victory. But if he needed a decisive win in which he regained the initiative by spelling out his vision for the next four years, he’ll have to wait until next week and hope the third time’s the charm.
For Obama did not win such a victory. Personally, I would have called it a draw at worst, because the best, most sustained argument all night came from Mitt Romney, talking about Obama’s economic record, in response to a man who asked the president why he should vote for him again. It was a withering recitation of the missed opportunities of Obama’s presidency. “We don’t have to live like this” and “we don’t have to settle for [insert specific item from Romney's list of Obamanomics miseries here]” were simple but powerful points about what voters overwhelmingly call the most important issue of this campaign. The fact that Romney was responding to a question from a black man, whose demographic has been described as unanimously in favor of Obama, only made his answer more effective.
Overall, those surveyed by both CBS and CNN gave Obama a narrow victory. CBS had it at 37 percent saying Obama won, 30 percent saying Romney, and 33 percent calling it a draw. CNN: 46 percent Obama, 39 percent Romney, 15 percent tie.
In other words, on a night when he needed to regain the momentum, more than half of undecided voters did not say Obama won — and his pluralities not only were at or below his current level in national polls but were also within each poll’s margin of error. This was no thunderbolt like Romney’s Denver performance, which registered the largest margin of victory in Gallup’s history of polling debate results. Yes, Obama “showed some life.” But is this what the Planet-Healer and Sea-Lowerer has fallen to? Showing a pulse?
So, perceptions about the candidates haven’t altered much. Did either land any blows on substance?
Besides the economic monologue by Romney I already mentioned, there were few, if any, clear-cut victories. The Obama campaign will try to make hay out of the president’s sharp line about being “offended” by Romney’s suggestion that he or members of his administration were playing politics with the lethal attack on our consulate in Benghazi. But Obama also kept the issue alive by insisting he’d said terrorists were behind the attack as soon as the second day, when in fact his reference that day to “acts of terror” came after he mentioned the original 9/11 attacks and was not specifically applied to Benghazi. What’s more, Obama and members of his administration still kept referring to the anti-Islam YouTube video and the protests it allegedly sparked for weeks after the attacks; we now know the State Department knew very early on that there had been no such protests in Benghazi. Hashing this out in the press for even a couple of days more does not help Obama — and we’re bound to revisit the issue during next week’s debate, which specifically covers foreign policy.
On energy, both men essentially accused each other of lying about the facts on U.S. fossil-fuel production. National Journal notes that oil production on public land rose between 2008 and 2011, as Obama said — albeit possibly due to policies put in place by the Bush administration, given the lag time between policy making and the effect in the field — but there was less natural gas and coal from public land, as Romney said.
The back-and-forth about Romney’s tax plan covered little new ground, and each candidate can point to a study that supposedly proves his point. About the only thing new was Romney’s hint that taxpayers will have a cap for whichever deductions they choose to use. He emphatically promised more than once neither to raise taxes on the middle class nor to lower the tax burden on the wealthy. Obama could do little else but insinuate Romney would break these promises.
In all, the one big thing Romney did well was to keep the president tied firmly to his record in office, while the one big thing Obama failed to do was sketch out a vision for the next four years other than staying the course — a course, of course, of which a majority of Americans disapprove. Those are the two most relevant outcomes from the debate, and they don’t help the incumbent.
– By Kyle Wingfield