President Barack Obama seemed to finally figure out what to do in a debate—to assert and negate, in essence to clash and cross swords with Governor Mitt Romney on any issue on the table. As a result, the second debate was far from the steamroller for Romney as in the first debate.
In this town hall format of undecided voters assembled at Hofstra University, both men asserted and countered, both within the rigid format and outside of it. It created a challenge for the moderator Candy Crowley, who did an admirable job keeping decorum and keeping the debaters on point, and at one time correcting Romney on Obama’s actions on Libya, the feistiest moment of the debate. But it’s clear, while Romney seemed to be level with his last performance, the president’s more energized approach left the lasting overall impression that his performance on this night was greater than Romney’s— enough to erase the memory of the president’s first debate lapse.
Education was mentioned from the start. But that was mostly because the first questioner was 20-year-old college student Jeremy Epstein, who linked his education to one of the campaign’s key issue, jobs. Epstein wanted reassurance—for himself and his parents–that he’d have a good job after college to sufficiently support himself.
Romney was first to answer and showed some empathy mentioning a young woman in Pennsylvania who just graduated and needed three part-time jobs just to survive. “We have to make sure we make it easy for kids afford college, and also make sure when they get out of college, there’s a job,” Romney said.
Romney mentioned a program in Massachusetts where if you graduated in the top quarter of your high school class you got a scholarship, four-years tuition free to a public college. “I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing, we also have our loan program so that people are able to afford school. But the key thing is to make sure you have a job when you get out of school,” Romney said. “I know what it takes to get this economy going. With half of college kids graduating this year without a college level job, that’s just unacceptable. And likewise you have more debt on your back. So more debt and less jobs. I’m going to change that.”
If he knows what it takes, he didn’t really say.
But he did ask Epstein when he would graduate. “2014?” Romney asked. “ I’m going to make sure you get a job.”
That’s an easy campaign promise. One job guaranteed.
When it was Obama’s turn he was ready for the question.
He looked at the student and said, “Jeremy, your future is bright and the fact that you are making an investment in higher education is critical. Not just to you but to the entire nation.”
And then unlike Romney’s vague answer, Obama mentioned real specifics like his administration’s role in creating 5 million jobs in the last 30 months, and the goal of building up more high-paying manufacturing jobs. The president made his answer even more potent by using Romney’s shortcomings as examples—in this case, how Romney said the auto industry should go bankrupt, and comparing that to Obama’s moves to save the industry.
The president mentioned tax code changes and business incentives.
And then he linked back to education.
Said Obama: “We got to make sure we have the best education system in the world, and the fact that you’re going to college is great. But I want everybody to have a great education and we’ve worked hard that student loans are available for folks like you . And I want to make sure that community colleges are opening slots for workers to get retrained for the jobs that are out there right now and for the jobs in the future.”
At debate’s end, CNN’s focus group considered that passage Obama’s best moment.
Within the same question, Obama also mentioned controlling energy, developing the energy sources of the future and energy efficient cars. The logic being that we’d save as a country, “so we can invest in education like yours,” the president said.
Not to leave any stone unturned, the president mentioned rebuilding roads and bridges and schools, essentially more pump priming stimulus measures that have worked in the past to rebuild an economy.
“We do those things, not only is your future going to be bright, but America’s future will be bright as well,” Obama said.
All that came in just the first question, which essentially was about education. The topic did come up parenthetically in other areas. When the question was on gun violence, both Romney and Obama talked about parenting and education as a way to deal with violence.
But from the very first question, it was clear Obama was ready this time to make his assertions, defend his ground and clash with his opponent. This time we saw a real debate.