Obama Returns to Form

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I'll go with the flow and score the second presidential debate a comfortable win for Obama. His margin of victory wasn't as crushing as his margin of defeat in Denver, but it was a win nonetheless. Unlike last time, he was engaged and comfortable and energetic. He'd mastered the material. He was way better than before on Romney's tax proposals, partly because he was more precise. This was right on target:

Gov. 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 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 have taken such a sketchy deal...

He used Romney's 47 percent gaffe to good effect as well, saving it till the end so Romney couldn't respond. And this time it was Romney who missed the sitting ducks--notably, fumbling his attack on Obama over the Benghazi story by attaching great significance to an unimportant fact (whether Obama had referred to an "act of terror" in comments immediately after the killings) and getting it wrong. On the larger point, Romney was correct -- the administration's early account of what happened was false -- but he messed it up.

Obama defended his domestic record much better than before. Romney didn't perform badly, but again he was vague on the main points of policy, and with Obama on form, that wasn't good enough. He kept falling back on what he'd call the big picture: It's all about jobs, and he knows how to create them because he was a successful businessman. Obama said even less about his ambitions for the next four years than Romney -- but he was so much more confident and forceful than last time that I bet most viewers weren't bothered. The debate confirmed one thing, if it needed confirming: Both men would rather assault each other than explain their policies. I'd like to think voters object, but the sad thing is, from a tactical point of view, Obama and Romney might be right to accentuate the negative. It's certainly what their respective supporters most want to hear.

We'll see whether the bounce Romney got from the first debate will be reversed. I'd expect the debate to stall his recent momentum. But I doubt he'll fall all the way back to where he was pre-Denver -- partly because Obama's margin of victory was smaller, and partly because the first debate seemed to shock quite a few voters (and quite a few pundits) into thinking that Romney deserved to be taken seriously after all. If that's true, the second debate won't be enough to undo it.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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