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Obama’s Very Good Night—In Four Key Moments

Tonight President Obama made the case for his reelection. And he made it awfully well—better, certainly, than he did in Denver two weeks ago and better, perhaps, than he has at anytime in the last few months.

In a substantively thick debate that featured sharp exchanges and even some flashes of emotion, Obama and Mitt Romney discussed a wide swath of issues—from the economy to energy to national security. The format was a town hall meeting, with questions coming from undecided voters selected randomly by the Gallup organization. Many of us had feared a litany of pointless, shallow questions. We were quite obviously wrong.

The voters asked very direct questions about the candidates’ positions on the issues—and they got some very direct answers, particularly from the president. In Denver, Obama missed such opportunities to talk up his own ideas or point out the problems with Romney’s. In Long Island, Obama made the most of them.

I'm not the expert on how this will play with the voters. (Try the other Cohn.) But if the recent past is indicative, the "winner" will be the man who sounded the most confident, or the one who had the moments that replay best as ten-second clips, or the one whose supporters did the best post-debate spinning. And by that criteria, I imagine, Obama would prevail.

If there’s a single moment that will stand out from this debate, it’ll probably be a late exchange about Libya—when an indignant Obama called Romney’s attack on his administration’s truthfulness “offensive.” An alternative might be Obama's response to Romney when, during an exchange about Romney's personal investments, Romney said repeatedly "have you looked at your pension." Obama responded, "You know, I -- I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long." 

But four other moments stood out for me, because they were the moments when Obama did everything he didn't do last time—and that he so desperately needed to do this time. He made coherent, compelling arguments about policy.

1. The tax plan. In Denver, Obama spent much of the first segment trying to pin down the evasions in Romney’s tax plan—in particular, Romney’s utter failure to specify how he’d pay for the massive tax cut he has proposed. But Obama missed the mark, getting all caught up in the overall price tag ($5 trillion) and failing to explain clearly why the different parts of the plan couldn’t possibly add up the way Romney has claimed. Romney, meanwhile, proclaimed that he wouldn’t reduce taxes on the rich.

When a voter put the question directly to Romney—what deductions are you going to cut—he dodged the question, refusing to identify a single one. This is what he and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have consistently done in response to such questions over the last few weeks. But, this time, Obama nailed him on it:

…what he says is he's going to make sure that this doesn't add to the deficit and he's going to cut middleclass taxes. 
But when he's asked, how are you going to do it, which deductions, which loopholes are you going to close? He can't tell you. …
Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we're going to pay for it, but we can't tell you until maybe after the election how we're going to do it, you wouldn't take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn't add up.
And -- and what's at stake here is one of two things, either Candy -- this blows up the deficit because keep in mind, this is just to pay for the additional spending that he's talking about, $7 trillion - $8 trillion before we even get to the deficit we already have. Or, alternatively, it's got to be paid for, not only by closing deductions for wealthy individuals, that -- that will pay for about 4 percent reduction in tax rates.
You're going to be paying for it. You're going to lose some deductions, and you can't buy the sales pitch. Nobody who's looked at it that's serious, actually believes it adds up.

2. The auto rescue. No single episode from the last four years says more about Obama’s presidency than his decision to rescue General Motors and Chrysler. He didn’t have to bargain with Congress, the way he did on the stimulus. He had authority to do it on his own. But he was also taking a political risk: By that time, the public had severe bailout fatigue. The idea wasn’t even popular in the Midwest.

Obama approved the rescue anyway. Today, both companies are making money and, more important, they’re hiring workers. The unemployment rate in Michigan and Ohio has plummeted—still too high, as it is in the rest of the country, but a far cry from the near-depression conditions that might have prevailed if the companies shuttered.

Romney, who spent most of the Republican primary campaign attacking the bailout, has more recently suggested that he supported this course all along. And that’s what he said on Tuesday night—that Obama had actually followed the course he suggested. 

There’s a grain of truth here. Obama ended up putting the companies through bankruptcy, just as Romney had been urging all the way back in 2008. But Obama had the government make the loans directly, which is what Romney has always said he opposed. Without that money, and with the financial industry unable to make loans on its own, the companies almost surely would have had to go through liquidation. Obama made sure viewers understood that:

Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs. And that -- don't take my word for it, take the executives at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney. But they'll tell you his prescription wasn't going to work.

By the way, the auto rescue isn't simply important because of what it did for the midwest. It is also a test of character and a window into economic philosophy. Obama made a politically difficult decision, while Romney has shifted his rhetoric to accommodate political demands. And, in the end, Obama was willing to have the government act in order to save a vital industry. Romney has said he would not have done so.

3. The accomplishments. Nothing has frustrated Obama supporters more than his frequent reticence to defend his own record. When a voter asked what Obama had done to earn his vote, he went through the record, step by step:

we've gone through a tough four years. There's no doubt about it. But four years ago, I told the American people and I told you I would cut taxes for middle class families. And I did. I told you I'd cut taxes for small businesses, and I have.
I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead.
I said that we would put in place health care reform to make sure that insurance companies can't jerk you around and if you don't have health insurance, that you'd have a chance to get affordable insurance, and I have.
I committed that I would rein in the excesses of Wall Street, and we passed the toughest Wall Street reforms since the 1930s. We've created five million jobs, and gone from 800 jobs a month being lost, and we are making progress. We saved an auto industry that was on the brink of collapse.

Personally, I would have liked a stronger case for health care. Obama talked about it like it was a patients bill of rights, not the most important piece of domestic legislation in a generation—one that will bolster economic security for millions. But overall it was a strong defense.

4. The closing. The last question seemed like a softball, when a voter asked each man to rebut a misconception about his record, personality, or proposals. But Obama used the question to rebut the charges he doesn’t believe in free enterprise—and turned it into a soliloquy about the proper role of government, not as a substitute for the market but as a watchdog and safety net, to make sure the market works for everybody. And he managed to work in Romney’s comments about the “47 percent,” the argument everybody expected but never got in Denver:

I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy's grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.
And -- and that is part of what's at stake in this election. There's a fundamentally different vision about how we move our country forward.
I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent 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. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
And I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.
When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. That's why I'm asking for your vote and that's why I'm asking for another four years.

Obama had his poor moments, too. A voter asked why he hadn’t done more on gun control. Obama dodged the question, presumably because he didn’t have an answer. (Here the regional ideological bias showed; it's hard to imagine that question coming up in a debate held in Kentucky.) And on that Libya question that made for such good television, Obama never did answer the very legitimate question of why American diplomatic personnel didn't get better protection.

But Romney couldn't really answer these questions, either. He’s no fan of gun control and he’s yet to suggest what he would have done differently in Libya. And Obama did manage to do something else he failed to do in Denver—to lay out his jobs agenda. In an e-mail to the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, pollster Stan Greenberg explained why this was so important:

I thought he made the determination from the first second to be forward-looking — laying out each element of his economic plan. He repeatedly said, this is what I want to accomplish in a second term. While he clearly sounded confident about what he had done, he didn’t say, give me a second term because of a job well done. He repeatedly said , I would like another term to do this or that — on energy, education and others. I think voters will feel they heard him talking about the changes and progress he wants to achieve. 

Will the voters see it the same way? Will this performance change the dynamics of the race? Again, I really don't know. On the jobs plan, for example, voters haven't exactly embraced it even though economists have suggested it would reduce unemployment.

But I know that Obama made a strong, honest, and coherent argument for renewing his presidency—and for stopping Romney from getting a chance of his own.

Update: I cleaned up the copy and added a few substantive thoughts—about the auto bailout, the regional bias of the questions, and Obama's jobs agenda.

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