By sheer dint of staying awake and paying attention to the debate, President Obama was bound to perform better than his last outing a couple of weeks ago. He certainly did enough to give his partisans a reason not totally to surrender to despair, or to keep his own numbers from crashing precipitously. But I suspect he hasn't reversed the rise in Romney's fortunes any more than his presidency has slowed the rise of the oceans.
That's because he didn't do what he needed to do -- that is, to disqualify and effectively knock out Mitt Romney; to validate his own campaign's caricature of Romney as a heartless, flip-flopping, uncaring, vacuous liar; and restore his own image as some intellectual colossus. (The latter is, most likely, gone forever.) Whatever Obama gained in aggression (necessary to shore up his base's enthusiasm) he may well have lost in likability (necessary to win over/back undecideds). It strikes me that Romney is much better at criticizing the President's record without seeming disdainful, defensive or condescending (a problem Obama has as a general matter). And though Obama may have enspirited his base, it's not clear how anything he said would have won back or won over people who weren't already in his corner.
Romney obviously didn't -- couldn't -- completely clean the President's clock tonight as he did before, given the President's aggression. He certainly did miss some opportunities -- most notably on Benghazi, when he really didn't follow up to make the point that Obama's jetting off to a Vegas fundraiser would be even worse if (as Obama had claimed) he had characterized it as a terrorist attack from the very beginning. Then again, Candy Crowley's ill-timed "lifeline" to Obama did a lot to break Romney's flow in that department (although, paradoxically, her incorrect "fact check" will serve to further the Benghazi discussion, to Obama's detriment). He likewise missed the chance to critique ObamaCare's attack on religious freedom.
But one place where Romney really did shine was in listing the particulars of how the Obama presidency has been a failure. Here is his response:
[T]hese last four years haven't been so good as the president just described and that you don't feel like your confident that the next four years are going to be much better either.
I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years. We just can't afford four more years like the last four years.
He said that by now we'd have unemployment at 5.4 percent. The difference between where it is and 5.4 percent is 9 million Americans without work.
I wasn't the one that said 5.4 percent. This was the president's plan. Didn't get there.
He said he would have by now put forward a plan to reform Medicare and Social Security, because he pointed out they're on the road to bankruptcy. He would reform them. He'd get that done. He hasn't even made a proposal on either one.
He said in his first year he'd put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenges. Didn't even file it.
This is a president who has not been able to do what he said he'd do. He said that he'd cut in half the deficit. He hasn't done that either. In fact, he doubled it. He said that by now middle-income families would have a reduction in their health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year. It's gone up by $2,500 a year. And if Obamacare is passed, or implemented - it's already been passed - if it's implemented fully, it'll be another $2,500 on top.
The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again. He keeps saying, "Look, I've created 5 million jobs." That's after losing 5 million jobs. The entire record is such that the unemployment has not been reduced in this country. The unemployment, the number of people who are still looking for work, is still 23 million Americans.
There are more people in poverty, one out of six people in poverty.
How about food stamps? When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. Today, 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It's growing more slowly this year than last year, and more slowly last year than the year before.
The president wants to do well. I understand. But the policies he's put in place from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank to his tax policies to his regulatory policies, these policies combined have not let this economy take off and grow like it could have.
You might say, "Well, you got an example of one that worked better?" Yeah, in the Reagan recession where unemployment hit 10.8 percent, between that period - the end of that recession and the equivalent of time to today, Ronald Reagan's recovery created twice as many jobs as this president's recovery. Five million jobs doesn't even keep up with our population growth. And the only reason the unemployment rate seems a little lower today is because of all the people that have dropped out of the workforce.
The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked. He's great as a - as a - as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision. That's wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn't been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need. Median income is down $4,300 a family and 23 million Americans out of work. That's what this election is about. It's about who can get the middle class in this country a bright and prosperous future and assure our kids the kind of hope and optimism they deserve.
His responses about flexible workplaces (on the pay question) and the importance of familiy structure (on the gun question) were very good -- and I suspect very appealing to women.
Obama no question got some attacks in. But he has three big problems going forward:
(1) His record;
(2) The fact he offered plenty of criticisms of Mitt Romney -- but no plans of his own to improve conditions in another term; and
(3) He has utterly failed to disqualify Romney as not just a plausible -- but a highly accomplished, good -- alternative to himself.
His entire reelection strategy was predicated on #3, and it is gone. So now, the election has turned back from a choice between Obama and a bad alternative (a narrative Obama spent hundreds of millions to promote) to a choice between Obama and a good alternative -- which has the unhappy (for the incumbent) effect of turning the election into a referendum on his record.
And thus, though it may stlll be close, Romney is in the stronger position going forward.