Obama Comes Out Swinging in 2nd Debate; Candy Crowley Fact-Checks Romney

This article has been corrected.

If President Barack Obama, in his first debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney earlier this month, left his supporters asking WTF at the president’s lackluster performance, Tuesday night’s performance should find them taking heart. In a contentious town-hall style debate at Hofstra University in New York, Obama came out ready to take on his opponent with a battery of barbs and facts, and some sly strategy.

Romney at times seemed thrown by the president’s deftness, and found himself brought up short when moderator Candy Crowley of CNN fact-checked a Romney claim about Obama's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and found it to be, well, false. Neither man came off as particularly likeable, but Romney strayed into bully territory several times when he tried to play Crowley the same way he did PBS’s Jim Lehrer in the first debate -- by talking after time was called. Only with Crowley, the trick didn’t work.

During an exchange about energy policy, the two candidates walked toward each other, and then circled around the floor, looking like two caged animals stalking each other for a fight. Unlike the earlier debate in Denver, Obama this time used his famed detachment to bait Romney into badgering him, as when Romney tried to nail Obama for allegedly having offshore investments in his pension fund.

"Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney asked.

"You know, I don't look at my pension," Obama replied. "It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long."

When Romney touted his "five-point" jobs plan*, Obama called it a "one-point plan." He continued: "And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”

The two men sparred over immigration, with Romney blaming Obama for not having introduced comprehensive immigration reform, and Obama reminding the audience of Romney's assertion during the Republican presidential primary debates that the best way to deal with undocumented immigrants is essentially to make life so difficult for them that they "self-deport." Obama also tied Romney to the draconian Arizona anti-immigrant law, whose author, Obama said, was a top Romney adviser. "If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang-bangers, people who are hurting the community,” Obama said.

The gang-banger reference soon went viral on Twitter.

And in one spectacular verbal gaffe, Romney served up fodder for a social media meme that will likely dog him until election day: “binders full of women.”

Women unbound

The topic was equal pay for women, and in her question, Katherine Fenton, a young woman drawn from among the purportedly undecided voters who filled the hall cited a familiar figure: that women earn 72 cents for every dollar earned by a man performing the same work.

Obama, answering first, cited his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for women who sought a legal remedy for gender-based pay discrimination. Romney punted on the question, and pivoted to his claim of having appointed a record number of women to high-level and cabinet posts during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. “[W]e took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet,” Romney said. “ I went to a number of women's groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”

The comment spawned a Tumblr, a hashtag, and countless other permutations. The meme site, Texts From Hillary, featured the iconic photo of the secretary of state, phone in hand, inscribed with the message, “Romney still uses binders? LOL.”

Obama saw his opening and returned to the topic of pay, and to Romney's refusal to say whether he would have supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. 

Addressing the questioner by name, Obama said: "Katherine, I just want to point out that when governor [was asked if he] supported it, he said, 'I'll get back to you.' And that's not the kind of advocacy that women need in any economy." The president went on to cite the contraception mandate in the health-care bill as a matter of both good economics and gender fairness, and noted Romney's promise to end funding for Planned Parenthood. 

"I've got two daughters," Obama continued, "and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody's sons have." On the campaign trail, Romney, who has no daughters, often mentions speaks with pride of being the father of five sons.

An act of terror

In what was arguably an issue of the greatest vulnerability for Obama, Romney flubbed what could have been a win for him in trying to address the administration’s mixed messages, in the days immediately following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, regarding the nature of the assault.

Romney, you’ll recall, issued a statement the night of the attack falsely alleging that the administration expressed sympathy for the attackers, and called a press conference the next day to accuse the president of doing so himself. At issue was the question of whether the siege, conducted on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., was the response of a mob to a vulgar anti-Islam video by a U.S. filmmaker that was posted to YouTube, or something more organized, perhaps by al Qaeda. The weekend following the incident, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, saying that the best information the administration had at that time was that it was a mob action, possibly involving heavily armed militiamen. Questions still remain about the level of security at the consulate.

During the debate, Romney claimed that it took Obama 14 days to declare the assault, which left the U.S. ambassador and three consulate staff members dead, a terrorist attack.

Obama refuted Romney’s claim, reminding the former governor that, in the White House Rose Garden the day after the incident, the president referred to it as “a terrorist attack.”

"And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics
or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," Obama added.

When Romney kept insisting that Obama was wrong about his Rose Garden remarks, the president turned to Crowley, who confirmed that Obama was correct.

By reducing his offensive to a fight over a bad fact, Romney decimated any opportunity he had to raise other questions about the administration’s response. 

Cameo appearance by the 47 percent

Perhaps the greatest frustration felt by liberals who watched the first debate between Romney and Obama was the president’s failure to mention the infamous remarks made by Romney about the 47 percent of the American public that Romney claimed comprised people who “see themselves as victims” and believe that government should provide them with food, shelter and health care. And just as it seemed they would find themselves equally frustrated with debate number two, Obama revealed that he was saving those remarks for his last word.

It was obviously by design, as it likely was in the first debate, with the president making the apparent determination that the greater good to his own campaign was to deprive Romney any opportunity to walk back those remarks or apologize for them. (In fact, the day after the Denver debate, Romney booked himself onto the Fox News Channel show, Hannity, where he delivered that contrition.)

The closing question, a softball, came from audience member Barry Green, who asked: “What is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?”

“I think the president's campaign has tried to characterize me as someone who's very different than who I am,” Romney replied. “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future.”

Then it was Obama’s turn. He stated the biggest mischaracterization of him as being someone who doesn’t support the free enterprise system, who believes that all jobs come from government. Then he pivoted to his opponent. From the CNN transcript:

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.

It would appear that the game is back on.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article referred to Romney's "five-point plan" as a tax plan. Romney was actually speaking of his jobs plan.

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