In a face-to-face showdown, Obama’s apparent discomfort can induce a level of detachment that seems to border on dissociation, as seen in his first debate face-off with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Denver earlier this month. But in last night’s battle between the two presidential contenders at Hofstra University in New York, Obama was fully present, even if his unease occasionally revealed itself, puncturing Romney’s armor of jovial smugness through a combination of rehearsed rejoinders, on-the-spot quips and deft deflections of Romney’s attacks. And on one subject where Obama was vulnerable -- the administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the president skillfully used a misstatement by Romney to knock the Republican off his game.
Aside from his penchant for, just as pundits are about to write him off, performing well, Obama wasn’t faced with the surprise he walked into in Denver, when Romney famously reset his Etch-a-Sketch to dial up an entirely new set of positions, on issues ranging from immigration to taxes from those he had been peddling over the course the campaign, or sought to obscure his right-wing stance on abortion with qualifying language.
With the Democratic base demanding some fight from the president, Obama didn’t disappoint. Here are the nine best rhetorical blows he landed on the Republican candidate.
1. Terror in the Rose Garden. It wasn’t the first punch Obama threw (we’ll get to that), but it’s the one you’ll be hearing most about today -- the one in which Romney threw down a bad fact and got himself badly snagged on it.
Ever since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the American ambassador and three consulate staff dead, the administration has struggled to communicate with the public just exactly what happened on September 11, 2012, when the consulate came under attack by heavily armed men. But it’s a hand that Romney has consistently overplayed, and he did so again at Hofstra.
Republicans sought to politicize the tragedy from the moment it happened: Romney issued a statement on the day of the incident that falsely accused the administration of “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks,” and called a press conference the next day to make the same charge. That played badly for Romney, but by the following weekend, the administration flubbed its own response when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice sounded a bit too definitive when, while making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, she said the administration, based on its best information, was viewing the attack as a mob response to a crude anti-Islam video posted by an American filmmaker on YouTube. Questions also arose about the level of security at the consulate, renewing Republicans’ criticism of the administration.
During a discussion of the Libya attack, Romney said, “There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.”
Obama begged to differ. From the debate transcript:
The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
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. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as commander in chief.
Romney suddenly looked small -- and incredulous, as if he just couldn’t believe that Obama had really made those remarks in the Rose Garden. So he refused to accept them.
From the debate transcript (with edits in brackets):
ROMNEY: I -- I think [it] interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That's what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
Obama wasn’t taking the bait. “Please proceed, Governor,” he said calmly. Translation: If you wish to place a rope around your own neck, who am I to stop you?
Romney continued: “I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
“Get the transcript,” Obama interjected.
Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN couldn’t help herself, apparently having been present when the president made his Rose Garden remarks. “[H]e did in fact, sir...call it an act of terror.”
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama gamely asked.
Crowley repeated her confirmation, adding a qualifying statement that it did indeed take two weeks before the administration publicly dispensed with the notion that the attack stemmed from a riot related to the video (not that the two -- a terrorist attack and the work of an angry mob -- were necessarily mutually exclusive).
But the damage was done, and when Romney continued to pursue the matter, Obama simply asked, “Candy?”, and the moderator moved to the next question.
From that point on, Romney never quite regained his footing.
2. “What Governor Romney said just isn't true.” Sometimes a simple statement says so much. In a rejoinder to Romney’s response to the opening question of the debate, posed by Jeremy Epstein, a college student concerned about his job prospects, Obama uttered the words that, during the last debate, his supporters longed for in vain as Romney served up a plate of misleading claims. Last night was different.
Romney took issue with Obama’s claim that the governor had urged that the Detroit automakers be allowed to go bankrupt. “Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt,” Romney said. “You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did.”
Romney went on to say that the president, in signing the auto industry loan bailout, did “precisely what I recommended.” As recounted in the transcript, Obama responded:
Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs. And that -- don't take my word for it, take the executives' at GM and Chrysler, some of whom are Republicans, may even support Governor Romney. But they'll tell you his prescription wasn't going to work.
3. The “one-point plan.” During the exchange about jobs and the auto bailout, Romney referenced his jobs plan. From the transcript:
We have not made the progress we need to make to put people back to work. That's why I put out a five-point plan that gets America 12 million new jobs in four years and rising take-home pay. It's going to help Jeremy get a job when he comes out of school. It's going to help people across the country that are unemployed right now.
Obama was quick on the draw, per the transcript:
Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector, that's been his philosophy as governor, that's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.
You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.
4. “A sketchy deal.” Throughout the campaign, Romney has touted his plan for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, offering not much in the way of details about how he would pay for it. In an round on taxes, Obama painted Romney as trying to put one over on the American people. From the transcript:
Now, Governor 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 then 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 take such a sketchy deal and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn't add up.
5. Yours is bigger than mine. After Obama took Romney to task for investments by Bain Capital in companies that outsourced American jobs to China, Romney circled back at the end of an answer on immigration, thinking he had a bit of information on which he could snag the president. Obama’s own pension fund, Romney claimed, included investments in Chinese companies and an investment in a fund listed in the Cayman Islands, a notorious tax haven where Romney has an estimated $3 million stashed. Instead of addressing the charges, Obama quipped that he doesn’t spend much time looking at his pension because, compared to Romney’s, it’s not all that big. From the transcript:
ROMNEY: Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in -- in Chinese companies. Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: I've got to say...
ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?
OBAMA: You know, I -- I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long.
6. Go after “gang-bangers,” not students. During a discussion of immigration, Obama tied Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, around Romney’s neck, and noted Romney’s pledge to veto the DREAM Act, a proposal to allow a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Today, these young people face deportation at every turn, especially as they pursue higher education. They cannot get drivers’ licenses or student aid.
When Romney denied that he lauded the Arizona law, which was written to allow law-enforcement officers to demand immigration documents from anyone they suspected of being in the U.S. without government sanction, as a “model for the nation,” Obama pointed out that Romney’s immigration adviser was the designer of SB1070.
But the DREAM Act is where Obama scored his biggest point on immigration. From the transcript:
What I've also said is 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 -- not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that's what we've done. And what I've also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship.
The utterance of the term “gang-bangers” caused much excitement among the many high-minded folks who occupy the Twitterverse. We note here that Obama's characterization of his own deportation efforts is a bit disingenous. Yes, while he has announced that his administration will stop deporting people who would be covered by the DREAM Act if it passes into law, it has deported more than a million undocumented immigrants. (Mother Jones' Adam Serwer, calling Obama's remarks a low point for the president, reports on the administration's aggressive deportation strategy here.)
7. Daughters v. sons. In a question that reaped dividends for Obama, Katherine Fenton, a young woman, asked the candidates how they would address the income disparity between men and women, which she described as “females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn.” The topic offered Obama an opportunity to not only tout his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act (which allows people who suffer gender-based pay discrimination to bring suit against their employers even if they only learn of the discrimination years after the fact), but to also highlight the fact that, when one of his campaign aides was asked by the Huffington Post if Romney supported the act, the aide replied, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”
“And I've got two daughters and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody's sons have,” Obama said. Gee, I wonder who’s sons he’s talking about? Romney, who has no daughters, frequently describes himself as the father of five sons, an obvious point of pride.
In fairness to Romney, it should be noted that, a few hours after the initial exchange with Stein, the campaign did "get back" to reporters, saying that the governor, if elected president, had no plans to try to change the law. However, HuffPost’s Sam Stein reports that Romney adviser Ed Gillespie says that at the time the bill was before Congress, Romney opposed it. [UPDATE: Gillespie issued a statement after this article first published, saying that he had been wrong to say that Romney had opposed the Ledbetter Act in 2009; rather, the governor simply never took a position on it. For the record, Romney running mate Paul Ryan voted against the bill.]
Romney had little with which to counter Obama’s reputation as a champion of equal pay, so he launched into a riff about how, as governor of Massachusetts, he sought to name record numbers of women to cabinet and other high-level state positions by asking women’s organizations to send him recommendations, which led to him claiming to have solicited “binders full of women” a phrase that quickly went viral as a social media meme. (Aside from the hilarious phraseology, the story is also apparently not true, at least as recounted by Romney, per this report from AlterNet’s Sarah Seltzer.)
8. I knew George W. Bush. And, Governor, you’re no George W. Bush. Overshadowed by Romney’s Libya flub and Bindergate is a gem of rhetoric from the president, offered in a rejoinder to an answer Romney delivered to a questioner who asked what distinguished Romney’s policies from those of the 43rd president. Obama picked up that ball and ran with it, painting Romney as being far to the right of the reviled W, wrecker of the economy and Iraq warmonger.
Obama, as quoted in the debate transcript:
You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation.
George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they're not on economic policy. In some ways, he's gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy.
9. Enter the 47 percent. Obama, having lost the pre-debate coin toss to answer the opening question first, was given the final word in the debate -- and was apparently determined to save to the very end the number his supporters were longing to hear pass his lips. During the first debate, Obama frustrated many liberals by not mentioning Romney’s now infamous remarks, secretly recorded at a fundraising event in Boca Raton, that 47 percent of Americans “see themselves as victims” who feel entitled to food, shelter and health care at government expense. Romney’s characterization was based on the percentage of Americans who pay no ordinary federal income tax because their income either does not meet the threshold, or they are active military or retired Americans living primarily on Social Security benefits. (Low-income workers still pay federal payroll taxes.)
Saving the reference for his last moment to speak was a strategically smart move for Obama, as it deprived Romney the chance to walk back those remarks or apologize for them before a television audience encompassing tens of millions, which is likely why Obama never mentioned the 47 percenters during the first debate. (In the first debate, Romney had apparently planned a response to such a volley, and when deprived of the opportunity to address the controversy, appeared the next night on Fox News Channel’s Hannity to deliver his mea culpa to an audience of fewer than 2 million.)
Earlier in the debate, Obama noted that Romney, in an interview on 60 Minutes, stated he thought it fair that he, despite his many millions, paid only 14 percent in federal taxes, paid a much lower rate than, as Obama put it, “a nurse or a bus driver -- somebody making $50,000 a year.”
In the closing moments, Obama doubled down, prefacing his takedown with faint praise for the former Massachusetts governor and leveraged buyout mogul. From the 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.
When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities.
With that, Obama asked viewers for their votes, and went on to mingle with fans, while the pundits hashed out who won and who lost the debate. Not another word, it was reported, passed between Romney and Obama, after the debate ended, even as they all but brushed against each other in the crush of well-wishers and family members.