President Obama desperately needed a victory in Tuesday night’s debate against Gov. Mitt Romney, and that’s exactly what he got.
The president was assertive and passionate as he championed his accomplishments and redefined Romney as a plutocrat. He was a completely different president than the one we saw two weeks ago when he allowed himself to be bulldozed by a slew of unchallenged mischaracterizations and exaggerations about his own record and about the record of his opponent. As msnbc's Chris Matthews said on Tuesday’s post-debate Hardball, “You win when you have to really, really win… and tonight Obama played a really, really good game.”
But was the president’s performance enough of a comeback to secure him re-election gold?
Obama delivered some slam-dunk remarks on Tuesday and took a commanding lead on three issues in particular: women’s equality, the 47%, and Libya. The president also managed to knock down Romney’s economic plan, which he called “sketchy,” from a elaborate-sounding 5-point plan, to a simple one point: make sure that wealthy people at the top play by a different set of rules.
Obama was out in Iowa on Wednesday rehashing some of his winning attack lines from the debate.
“Everybody here's heard of the new deal, you've heard of the fair deal, you've heard of the square deal,” said Obama at a Cedar Rapids rally. “Mitt Romney's trying to sell you a sketchy deal... You don’t want to invest in that sketchy deal.”
While the president displayed equal agility and skill on the other issues covered, he was also helped a great deal by an unlikely assistant: Mitt Romney.
Romney had three damaging unforced errors during the debate, and as Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said Tuesday night, “Turnovers are what kill you in championship games.”
In response to a question about inequalities of women in the workplace, Romney gave the now infamous line that he collected “whole binders full of women,” while searching for female cabinet members. The choice of words raised the important question of why Romney did not know any qualified women after a long career in business. The “binders full of women” comment almost immediately had its own Tumblr, Facebook page, and Twitter hashtag.
Romney also massively missed on Libya when he wrongfully accused the president of waiting two weeks before calling the attack in Benghazi an act of terror. Obama in fact said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” from the Rose Garden the day after the attack, a statement moderator Candy Crowley confirmed on the spot in what was arguably the most embarrassing moment of the night for Romney.
But the most perplexing error came at the very end of the debate, when Romney inexplicably opened the door for Obama to attack him on his damaging 47% remarks, which were just beginning to fade in the wake of Romney’s first debate victory.
“I care about 100% of the American people,” said Romney in his closing statement. “I want 100% of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future.”
The veiled reference to his 47% comments gave just enough room for Obama to hit him hard in his closing statement, which was already established to be the last of the evening.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47% of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives; veterans who've 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.”
It was a direct hit, and boon for the base. As Matthews said on Hardball Wednesday, “Obama finished strong, hitting a homer in the ninth when challenger Mitt Romney was foolish enough to throw that 100% line high and right down the middle. Obama swung for the fences and ended the night with his best of the night.”
So the victor of this battle is clear, but what of the war? Obama dug himself out of a hole, no doubt, but as The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman said on Hardball Wednesday, “he is hardly home free.” Republican strategist John Feehery joined in the reaction, pointing out that while the president did a good job of laying into Romney’s economic plan, he failed to lay out one of his own.
Feehery suggested that Obama should come up with a big, bold, new idea for the economy in the dwindling weeks before the election, but Fineman and Matthews disagreed.
“It does no good for Obama to throw out something brand new,” challenged Matthews. “It has to be based on something he's had some street cred on: the auto industry. He had a particular view the United States government should intervene, and rescued the auto industry so it didn't go down. He did that. Can he project that to larger numbers of industries, new industries, older industries to re-industrialize the United States? Can that sell as a proposal for the next four years?”
Matthews and Fineman recommended for the president to push an industrial policy to fill the hole in his economic proposals left staring undecided voters in the face after Tuesday’s debate. Obama has a legitimate record of success in stimulating manufacturing jobs and rescuing an essential American industry. He should expound upon that record and propose translating the auto industry’s success to other areas of manufacturing in these crucial weeks ahead.
And while the president needed to be aggressive with Romney in this debate to redeem himself for being “too polite” in the first one, Fineman believes Obama should do his best to keep his message positive from now on to appeal to undecided voters, especially women.
“The loose change out there, the undecided voters, in places like Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, and so on are women,” said Fineman. “They are suburban women, they're working women. I think they want more of a positive message. They want a unifying message. They want optimism and strength... Give Bill Clinton the job of trying to dismantle Mitt Romney. Let other people do that. And you, Barack Obama, try to be the guy you were four years ago, updated, wiser, stronger, more sophisticated that you were."
Obama did well on Tuesday, but this race is not yet over. If the president can manage to stay positive and answer the call for legitimate economic proposals in these final weeks, he will have made the ultimate comeback that knocks out Romney in November.