In the end, a presidential debate should provide viewers with a greater measure of clarity. That requires both candidates arriving prepared, ready to defend and take the offense. The second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening delivered on that count, both sharp and aggressive. The striking thing, of course, was the elevated performance of the president, no hints of disdain or the seeming indifference he showed, still inexplicably, in their first encounter.
The president rose to defend a record worthy of strong support. It hardly rates as making excuses to point out that as he arrived in office, the Great Recession was pummeling the job market, 3.8 million jobs lost in the first six months of 2009. That should be pinned on the new occupant of the Oval Office? The president reminded about the many steps forward, the country adding private sector jobs each month since February 2010, roughly 5 million in all. That isn’t enough, but it is part of the foundation the president has been laying for a stronger economy, including progress in health care, education, energy and exports.
In this debate, the president began to pull the whole together. One of his most effective moments came at the end as he offered a clear idea of the difference government can make in lives, securing opportunities for individuals to the benefit of all.
The president unleashed his share of half-truths and distortions, for instance, in misleading about his opponent’s views of the extreme immigration law in Arizona. Yet Romney proved the more slippery as he continued to recast his positions, a move to the center burdened by his long and exuberant courtship of the right during the primary season.
Listen to Romney, and you are invited to think that he has a plan to repair the country’s finances and to create 12 million jobs. All that is missing are the crucial details, the how and why about getting there. Romney scores with his litany of Obama shortcomings, say, the 15 million Americans in poverty, or the many college graduates who cannot find good jobs. If the numbers deserve context, they also should serve as a departure point for explaining what exactly would be different in a Romney presidency. Instead, he asks for trust, arguing he is a businessman and therefore can deliver.
Unfortunately, trust becomes hard to win amid the fog of his positions. Romney argued that employers should not be able to tell workers whether they can have contraceptive care. Yet in the past he firmly has said the opposite. He insisted (again) the president “doubled the deficit.” Actually, the president inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit and this year it is $1.1 trillion. In another reversal, Romney embraced expanded Pell Grants.
That is just a glimpse of the shifting, massaging, the strategic hollowness. Romney has little problem sharing the failings of the incumbent. What the second debate further clarified is his own failing, the absence of clues, let alone precise policies, about how he would make things better.