HE WAITED all of 45 seconds to make clear he came not just ready for a fight but ready to pick one.
President Obama, who concluded that he was “too polite” in his first debate with Mitt Romney, made sure no one would say that after their second. He interrupted, he scolded, he filibustered, he shook his head. He tried to talk right over Romney, who tried to talk over him back.
The President who waited patiently for his turn last time around forced his way into Romney’s time this time. At one point, he squared off with Romney face to face, almost chest to chest, in the middle of the stage, as if they were roosters in a ring. “What Governor Romney said just isn’t true.” “Not true, Governor Romney, not true.” “What you’re saying is just not true.” For a President teetering on the edge of a single term, making a more forceful case at Hofstra University on Long Island on Tuesday night could hardly have been more imperative.
Thirteen days after he took presidential decorum to a Xanax extreme, he tucked away a dinner of steak and potatoes and then went out on stage with plenty of red meat for anxious supporters. Whether it will decisively re-route the course of the campaign remains to be seen, but the president emerged from the encounter having settled nerves within his panicky party and claiming a new chance to frame the race with just three weeks left.
Heading into the evening, the Obama camp said that he needed at least a draw to mute the commotion over the first debate and drain some of the potential drama from the final meeting next Monday. But the risk, of course, was that an acerbic confrontation could turn off the very swing voters he covets. The strategy for Tuesday night was clear: undercut Romney’s character and credibility by portraying him as lying about his true positions on issues like taxes and abortion.
Time and again, Obama questioned whether the man on stage with him was the same “severely conservative” candidate who tacked right in the Republican primaries. He painted Mr. Romney as a tool of big oil who is soft on China, hard on immigrants, politically crass on Libya and two-faced on guns and energy. He deployed many of the attack lines that went unused in Denver, going after Romney’s business record, his personal income taxes and, in the debate’s final minutes, his comments about the 47 percent of Americans he once deemed too dependent on government.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan,” Obama charged. “He has a one-point plan,” which is to help the rich, he said. He mocked Mr. Romney by noting that he once closed a coal plant as the governor of Massachusetts. “Now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal,” he said.
As for trade, he said, “Governor, you’re the last person who’s going to get tough on China.” And he pressed Romney for not disclosing how he would pay for his tax and deficit reduction goals. “We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood,” he said. Mr. Romney held his own and gave as good as he got, presenting Obama as a failed president who has piled on trillions of dollars of debt, left millions of Americans without work, bungled security for American personnel in Libya, done nothing to reform entitlement programmes and deserted a middle class “crushed under the policies of a President who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again.”
But it was Obama who was the central story line of the night, his performance coming across as a striking contrast to that of his first face-off with Mr. Romney. For days leading up to Tuesday night’s encounter, Obama huddled in a Virginia resort with advisers to practice a more aggressive approach without appearing somehow inauthentic or crossing over a line of presidential dignity. It was a line he would stride up to repeatedly over the course of more than 90 minutes, and some will argue that he slipped over it at times.
Along the way, he ducked some questions. He never directly answered a voter who asked whether it was the government’s responsibility to try to lower gasoline prices, instead giving his stump speech on energy. Nor did he respond directly to another voter who asked who denied extra security to diplomats in Libya and why, although he did say, “I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there.” Nor did he offer an extensive articulation of what his forward-looking agenda would be for a second term beyond, essentially, arguing that electing his opponent would be moving back to failed policies of the past.
His aggressive approach came as no surprise to Romney’s camp. It was clear from the start when Obama made sure to use the first question — from a college student worried about finding a job — to jab Romney for opposing the way the President went about the auto industry bailout of 2009. With each question that followed came another attack.
When it was not his turn, Obama sat on a stool and looked at Romney as he talked, rather than staring down and taking notes as he did in Denver. There was little smirking, though he did project at times an air of tolerant dismissal. Evidently intent on redeeming himself by getting in all the points he failed to get in last time, Obama pushed right past time limits and at one point even refused to yield when the moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, tried to rein him in. “I want to make sure our timekeepers are working,” he complained when she tried to stop him on another occasion — never mind that at that point CNN’s time clock showed that he had spoken 19 minutes and 50 seconds, compared with 17 minutes and 17 seconds for Romney.
By the end, he had dominated the clock, consuming 44 minutes and four seconds to 40 minutes and 50 seconds for Romney. If that sort of score keeping gave it the feel of an athletic competition, Obama might not object. Aides and friends have long said he is a clutch player on the basketball court, the kind who turns in listless performances during practice but raises his level when the game is on the line.