Obama's Triumph


My instant reaction to the debate: I'm kind of amazed at how well Obama did. Granted, I'm an Obama supporter and a pessimist, so I guess I went into the debate with low expectations. Still:

I think Obama succeeded in striking a very delicate balance: He had to be sharp and feisty and tough (to erase those particular doubts about his first performance), but he had to stop short of Joe Biden levels of aggressiveness and remain essentially likeable. I think he did that. I've heard some commentators say Obama was "angry," but he didn't strike me as crossing that line -- except maybe a few times when he displayed righteous indignation that I thought was effective. Certainly he didn't seem angrier than Romney, and he wasn't as disrespectful of moderator Candy Crowley as Romney was.

Obama also handled several specific challenges well:

  1. Libya. Republican flacks had invested hugely in this issue going into the debate, clearly seeing it as a major vulnerability, and I assumed the best Obama could hope for here was a draw. But he actually prevailed. He was effective in his righteous indignation over Romney's insinuation about Obama's politicizing the issue. And Romney memorably stumbled into Crowley's real-time fact check about whether Obama had called the consulate attack terrorism in its immediate aftermath.
  2. The oil permit face-off. Romney went into high-drama mode and confronted Obama, demanding that he disclose how many oil drilling permits he had taken away from companies (or something like that). Obama demanded to be allowed to respond and responded effectively. This was clearly intended by Romney to be a highlight reel moment, but Obama denied him that.
  3. Obama also cleverly dodged a bullet on gas prices. I thought Romney had him dead to rights, noting how much they've risen during Obama's tenure. Obama replied that the reason they were so low four years ago was because the economy was in the pits and that if a president Romney lowered gas prices it would be by putting the economy back in the pits.

Obama's essential mission tonight was to erase the doubts he raised about himself in the first debate. His progressive based emerged from that debate doubting that he was a fighter and a true believer. And some independents wondered whether he wasn't, in the end, just an empty suit who got to the White House via a kind of affirmative action. It seemed to me he erased all such doubts, and in the bargain he raised doubts about Romney that he failed to effectively raise the first time around -- doubts about Romney's tax plan, doubts about Romney's ideological constancy, doubts about Romney's concern for average Americans.

If this was a high-school debate, scored on points, it would be very close, probably a narrow win for Obama. But the challenge facing Obama transcended that kind of scoring, and he met the challenge fully.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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