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Analysis After Town Hall: Obama Takes Aggressive Stance in Debate

October 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
NewsHour gets post-debate analysis from political analysts in the studio and in Hempstead, N.Y., at the conclusion of the 2nd presidential debate. President Obama's style starkly contrasted his performance in the first debate, voters were turned off by the candidates' interrupting , and women voters targeted in many responses.

GWEN IFILL: And with that, the second debate between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney is done, as the families, the wives — that’s Ann Romney there coming up to greet her husband.

And, of course, we’re going to see, I imagine — at the same time, the president is making his way toward his wife, Michelle Obama. And they’re supposed to go and also greet members of this town hall.

I’m — we’re going to bring in here with — I’m here with Judy Woodruff, of course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gwen, I think we saw a very different debate from the first presidential debate. This is a president who displayed more energy.

You heard him use the word fight there. But this is a president who seemed to be fighting for the job of president for a second term. And that was something that was, I think, very much in question after the debate that we — that happened in Denver earlier this month.

And, David Brooks, how did you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I guess, if we go by winners and losers, I guess I would have to say Obama won this debate, more poised.

I thought Romney gave some good answers. There were two really good answers that Romney gave on the — what the last four years have been like, differentiating himself from George W. Bush.

But, in general, I thought Obama was more poised, more fluid, more natural, had some moments, some television moments, objecting to Mitt Romney’s characterization of his actions after the Benghazi attack. A series of moments.

The crosstalk between them, I thought he seemed a little more in control. So I would think that, in the balance, as these things are judged, the edge tonight would have to go to the president.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what the masked man was who showed up tonight at Hofstra, but he wasn’t there in Denver. That’s for sure.

I thought the president was a lot more forceful, a lot more aggressive, no question about it. He had certain specifics to achieve. He mentioned Planned Parenthood five times. He was obviously unnerved, his campaign had been, by the numbers that women voters who had been his staunchest supporters were — had somehow softened in their support for him.

I thought that Mitt Romney’s best answer by far was the one that Mr. Jones asked about why President Obama deserves a second term. And he made the case why President Obama didn’t deserve a second term. I thought that was his strongest.

But he — on the taxes, let’s be very frank about it. He is not convincing. He’s not persuasive, Mitt Romney. I thought the president was very aggressive pointing out you can’t abolish the estate tax, keep the Bush tax cuts, cut taxes across the board by 25 percent, eliminate dividends and capital gains taxes for most people in the country, and somehow not reduce revenues.

And that just isn’t plausible. It isn’t believable. And I thought from that point forward, the president really had the upper hand and was more aggressive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think — I want to ask both of you…

GWEN IFILL: We neglected to introduce our handsome and talented duo…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields.



GWEN IFILL: Mark Shields, syndicated columnist, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re continuing to see the pictures at the debate site.

But, go ahead, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Can I tell you what the lead is — OK — what the lead is? Women in binders.

I mean, that is — that will be the clip that will be seen around the world, Mitt Romney. And the interesting thing about that is, he told the story about the women in his Cabinet, was that was affirmative action. That is affirmative action.

He got all these men. And he said, no, no, can’t we find some women? Go out and find some women. That’s the definition of affirmative action.


MARK SHIELDS: And I will be interested to see The Wall Street Journal editorial page attack him on that tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about, David and Mark, what the president had to say about a second term? Did you get a clearer sense tonight of what he’s going to do?


And this is the core of vulnerability. Each side has a core vulnerability. Romney has the vulnerability that a lot of his numbers don’t add up. And, as Mark said, I thought it was frankly nice to see a politician pay for that. And he paid for it tonight.

Obama’s vulnerability, he doesn’t have much of a second-term agenda. Romney didn’t make him pay for that tonight, particularly, and neither did any of the questioners. And, so, in that way, the president got off a little lighter on his core vulnerability than the Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: I hate to say I agree with David, but I do.

I mean, the president has yet to tell us how his second term would be different from his first term and it will be better, the country. I thought he overused the first person singular pronoun, the president did. It was “I, my administration, my people, my ambassadors.”

I mean, there wasn’t enough “we.” I don’t think — strangely, he didn’t connect well in the room with the people. I didn’t think either one of them did. There was no Clintonian moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was not a Bill…

GWEN IFILL: Yes, there was a lot of crossed arms.

But I’m really curious, because this debate was so different from the other debates we have seen, with people in the audience, with walking around. They seemed to almost get into it a couple of times.

How did that strike you? I was a little uncomfortable, I’ll be honest.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think that was — I thought you were wondering, is somebody going to throw a punch?


DAVID BROOKS: It got hot. They argued with Candy Crowley a little too much about the rules. Never do that.

And I thought those — at those moments, I thought they both looked bad, when they were trying to talk all over each other. The alpha male competition works when you’re talking about something. When you’re just trying to be Mr. Alpha, it looks boyish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to bring in our Jeffrey Brown right, now who is joined by some friends of ours — Jeff.


I am joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss and our political editor, Christina Bellantoni.

The short and long of it.

Start, Christina. You were looking at the “as it happens” take from social media. What was jumping out?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes. We were, in particular, looking at women this evening.

And one of the things that really stuck out was something that they just mentioned, of course, with this comment about women full of binders. That was — it’s obviously some pretty colorful language.


CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Or binders full of women. Excuse me.

And, you know, that became sort of an instant meme on Twitter. But it also was something that women were responding to on Facebook in personal posts with their social networks. And we also were tuning in to a group of Wal-Mart moms that were in a focus group that were sending us from dial tests from that all night long. And that was the thing…

JEFFREY BROWN: What were they saying? What were they…

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: A couple different things.

They were not all that interested in the response that the president gave about how Mitt Romney and George W. Bush were different, whereas that really trended on Twitter. A lot of partisans were very exercised about that.

And, also, they were very frustrated by the working of the ref with Candy Crowley and talking to her about not being enough time. That is what women didn’t like to see tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, the longer view here. What echoes did you hear? What Jumped out at you?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: 1984, Ronald Reagan as president was debating Walter Mondale, famously, bad for him, turned in a performance that thought that — many thought that President Reagan had lost it. He just wasn’t with the intensity that he had had before. People wondered whether he was up for a second term, a lot of the same things that were said about Barack Obama.

The thing is Reagan in the second debate, after the first one had caused him in some polls to be actually tied with Walter Mondale, reversed the damage, swept it away.

So I think — with this performance tonight, I think Barack Obama may very well do the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the format question that they were all — the guys were just talking about with especially some of those confrontational moments?


You know, this is the sixth town meeting debate. And the idea of this in the first place when it was started in 1992 was that it’s one way of making sure that at least you have got one debate where they’re kindly to each other because they’re not going to confront each other.

This was the iciest town meeting debate of all six. I used to think that 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore was an uncomfortable evening. Compared to this one, that was Valentine’s Day.


JEFFREY BROWN: Christina, you had spoken to both — both campaigns today.


JEFFREY BROWN: They knew what they were talking into, but…

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: They did. And they also each had their points they wanted to make.

And one of them — we talked to the campaign in Chicago, Obama’s campaign, Mr. Obama’s campaign, and they said he would definitely be talking about self-deportation. He made sure to bring that up before the question about immigration was even asked. This is something that he really wanted to target Mitt Romney on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there other themes that you were expecting to hear that perhaps didn’t come…

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: They each said — both camps said they really wanted to connect not just with the people in that room, but with the people at home.

So, that’s why you saw a lot of personal stories weaved in. But one thing that you heard from both were a lot of specifics. And that’s what people were responding to positively both in social media and in these traditional focus groups that we looked at.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, go ahead. Do you…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, and the other thing is that, in terms of degree of difficulty, it’s almost always harder for an incumbent president running for reelection because he’s got to defend the record. He’s done all sorts of things for four years.

The challenger can always say, I will do this and that, I will do better. It sounds better. So I think by that standard also, Barack Obama did very well tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he was under pressure, as you said, to come in and try to make up for lost ground.


JEFFREY BROWN: We were listening for would he — would he mention things like the 47 percent?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right, which he did at the end.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But what he didn’t do is what we have seen with other incumbent presidents, which is they’re very heavy on rebutting what the challenger says, very light in terms of saying what they would do in the second term, Ronald Reagan especially.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Michael and Christina, thanks so much — back to you, Judy and Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks, Jeff, Michael, and Christina.

We’re going to go back now to Hempstead, New York, the debate site at Hofstra University, where we’re joined now by Ari Shapiro of NPR and Jonathan Martin of Politico.

Jonathan, so give me some sort of sense. We know that there was pre-debate spin, during-debate spin, and post-debate spin. Who thinks they won?

JONATHAN MARTIN, Politico: Well, to give you a sense for who the campaigns think won, President Obama’s surrogate and top advisers, Gwen, were out there a good five minutes tonight before the debate even ended in the spin room.

David Axelrod and company came marching out to claim victory. Soon after, the Romney folks were there. But there is no question, on the heels of a poor performance in Denver, Gwen, President Obama’s high command is exhilarated tonight. They think he had a really strong performance here in New York and that he has gotten this thing straight.

I was really taken by the extent to which President Obama laid out an indictment of Governor Romney. In fact, I can’t recall a sitting president taking after a challenger in the way that President Obama did tonight.

It was reminiscent of what Governor Romney did during the primary debates when he would store so much information in his head about Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum and then, during the course of a 90-minute debate, lay it out there. Immigration, women’s issues, taxes, spending, it was all there. It’s just an entire binder of oppo.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of binders…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Ari Shapiro, let’s turn to you now.

You have been following Governor Romney on the trail. How did Governor Romney, what he had to say tonight compare to what you have been hearing lately and the first debate?

ARI SHAPIRO, NPR: Very similar to what he had been saying on the trail.

And, also, I thought it was a very similar Mitt Romney to the Romney that we saw in the first debate. What was different was his opponent. You saw Mitt Romney keep coming back to, whatever President Obama promises, you have to remember that we have had four years of what Romney describes as the Obama economy.

He kept citing the number that he always named on the stump, 23 million people looking for work, dropped out of the work force, don’t have a job or underemployed.

And one of the things that was really interesting to me was that, as the conversation turned to certain groups that President Obama has to win over, whether it’s women, whether it’s Latinos, while President Obama was offering specific prescriptions for women’s health, for example, for immigration policy, Mitt Romney said the most important thing, whether you’re a student — asked about student loans — is, you need a job. You need a better economy.

Whether you’re a woman asking about pay equity, he says, you need a job, you need a better economy. For him, it just kept coming back to the same point again and again and again through the 90 minutes.

GWEN IFILL: Jonathan, that last question which gave each candidate a chance to redefine himself, if he chose to, or to clear up a little misunderstanding about themselves, was their strategy going into this campaign — into this debate tonight for each of those candidates about what they wanted to do and how they wanted to come away?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, I think, in the case of President Obama, it was certain to be much more aggressive and to lay out a much tougher case against Governor Romney than he had in the previous debate.

And, for Governor Romney, I think it was to make sure that he gave as good as he got. And, look, I think Governor Romney had some good moments in this debate tonight. I think he was really on his message talking about the president’s record in the last four years, but President Obama was just so relentless in his attacks against Governor Romney that I think most folks will recall this debate for just the extent, the ferocity, if you will, that President Obama laid down his case with.

It was really remarkable. I think this was pointed out by Mr. Beschloss, and that is, it was almost stunning to hear so little about a second Obama term. He was entirely focused on just taking down Romney’s record.

It’s clear that his campaign thinks that’s the imperative here. You have to really take down Romney to win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there, Jonathan Martin and Ari Shapiro, both of you joining us from the debate site at Hofstra University in New York.

So, come back here to our two guests, Gwen, David and Mark.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any danger, though, that the difference that we saw in President Obama tonight was so different that there’s any risk in I guess a different persona?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think the risk, as Michael and Jonathan were talking about, was the iciness and the coldness.

GWEN IFILL: Ari and Jonathan.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Michael too.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, Michael as well. The’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: Michael earlier.

GWEN IFILL: That’s right. That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: I want to give him full credit.


DAVID BROOKS: You know, whether — how that plays.

It’s clearly, the people who are on their side — they’re going to love that. But how — those few who are undecided, those few who are persuadable, the two of them are not particularly likable people — I mean, not likable in this context.

GWEN IFILL: Not warm and fuzzy.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re not warm and fuzzy.

And for people who are judging more on personality, who is like me, who I — who gets me, I’m not sure they see each of them really saying, oh, I want to — he gets me.

GWEN IFILL: And the president seemed determined to come back time and again to Mitt Romney’s consistency, or lack thereof, on any number of issues. He kept circling back to that.


And even where Mitt Romney had an advantage — I thought when he — on the president on immigration, the president has never introduced comprehensive immigration legislation.

GWEN IFILL: Or gun control.

MARK SHIELDS: And gun control, both of them.

Both issues, interestingly enough, brought up by questioners, I mean, which — in the town meeting, which is a good recommendation for the town meeting.

But, in both cases, I thought that Mitt Romney wasn’t a very effective messenger because of his own problems or his own primary record on immigration. So, I mean, he isn’t in a position to make the case, even though I think the president was vulnerable.

And I do think that there wasn’t a flash of humor really or really even vulnerability. There was never a sense of humility that either one of them gave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think that is?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just think — I think the stakes are too high. I think we’re at a 48-48 race, or whatever you want to call it.

And the president knows that he got his head handed to him in Denver. And it hurt him. And there’s been a four-point change in the polls since then. And he had to be tough. And Mitt Romney is a natural combatant.

DAVID BROOKS: The person who is deemed to have won the debate is the person who dominates the room. And so it becomes alpha male.

GWEN IFILL: Is it still 48 and 48 tonight — after tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: I think — I think Obama will get a little something out of this. That would be my guess.

But I say that with some trepidation, because the coolness, you know, I think that may not — it won’t help Romney, but it may not swing things.

GWEN IFILL: Well, especially, as Christina was observing, about women and whether women liked that exchange and the attempt to kind of push the moderator around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. And I was looking at some of that very same reaction, reaction online.

So, with that, that does end our coverage of this second presidential debate.

GWEN IFILL: We will see you again here tomorrow night at our regular “NewsHour” time.

And, for now, I’m Gwen Ifill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I’m Judy Woodruff.

Thank you, and good night.