The president's narrow victory

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar over energy policy during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. AP


This post originally appeared on Slate.

In the seal of the United States, the eagle turns its head toward its right talon, which holds an olive branch, and away from the talon holding 13 arrows. It is meant to suggest a preference for peace. The eagle that hovered between the two candidates in the second debate had the same design, but for one difference: The eagle's head was turned toward the arrows. It was a fitting symbol for the pointed and sniping contest between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. It was a night of barbs, interruptions, and charges and counter-charges. "Very little of what the president said is true," said Romney. "It's not true governor," said Obama. "Not true. It's not true." During one exchange, Romney said, "You'll get your chance. I'm still speaking," as the audience in the arena seemed to gasp. At another point, the two men got so close and huffy, I thought moderator Candy Crowley might just ask them to take it outside.

It's a pretty good bet that undecided voters missed the important matter the boys were squabbling over--was it about a barbecue grill or the Lions and Bears football game? The debate was the only town hall-style contest in which voters posed questions. Just as the candidates seem to be speaking past the electorate, it often felt like they were speaking past the questioners. Both candidates avoided answering questions about gas prices. Romney continued to show an aversion to specifics in explaining his tax plan, and the president didn't do a great job of answering a voter who wanted to know what Obama was going to do to earn his vote.

If you had to score a winner (and I am obligated by the memorandum of understanding to do so), you'd give the night to the president--barely. He was a forceful advocate for his policies, kept Romney on defense, and gave Democrats plenty to cheer. He probably stopped his slide in the polls. He looked like a person who would fight for the middle class. In the first debate, he had looked like a person who wanted to skip middle class and get out to recess. In Round 2, Obama's closing remarks about fighting for the 47 percent of the popular vote that Romney disparaged in that secret video were among his best of any debate he's done on the national stage. When you finish strong, you are usually in a good place.

But Mitt Romney showed that his first debate performance was no fluke. He gave as good as he got, and he consistently offered a confident alternative to the weak Obama recovery. "I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get," he said. "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." Both candidates had bad moments: President Obama tried to reinvent his initial reaction to Libya in front of millions of people, and Romney tried to tell a story about women in his cabinet that was certainly off-key and perhaps not even true.

In a CBS poll of undecided voters after the debate, the group split nearly in thirds, with Obama winning slightly with 37 percent over Romney's 30 percent. Thirty-three percent thought the contest was a tie. Voters in the CBS pollby almost 3-to-1 thought Romney could better handle the economy, but the president won by a large margin on the question of which candidate cared about the middle class. A poll of "Wall Mart Moms" gave the edge to the president, but not by much. The CNN poll gave the president a victory by 7 percentage points. A race that was tied--or at least very close--may now be even more tied than ever. (Tied with a double knot?) It is as if the ups and downs of the last several months never happened.

In a conversation with one of Obama's top lieutenants in Ohio last week, I asked what he could say in the second debate that he didn't say in the first. "Outsourcing, offshoring, and autos," was the response, referring to Bain Capital's investment in companies that outsourced American jobs, Romney's use of offshore accounts, and his refusal to back the auto bailout. The president hit all those themes in the first 15 minutes. He also tied Romney to the very unpopular Republican Congress. He had the Midwest in mind when he mentioned his plan to create more manufacturing jobs, and the debate over the car bailout put Romney on the defensive.

Each candidate accused the other of not telling the truth, and both of them offered us examples of what that looks like. Romney told a false story about the past, and Obama told a false story about the present. During a politically charged exchange about fair pay for women, Romney recounted the early days of his Massachusetts administration. "I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men," Romney said. And I--and I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are--are all men?' They said, 'Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' " In recounting how he went on a search for qualified female candidates, Romney remembered, "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."

On its face, the answer is odd. Romney sounds a little out of touch with the inequities of the workplace. The notion that women had to be scared up from the bushes seems from another era. But the main point for a candidate whose veracity is a key talking point for his opponent is that the story may not be true. The Boston Phoenix has fact-checked the story and claims that the binder of women was presented to Romney when he came into office. He didn't appear to ask for it, as he claimed in Tuesday night's debate. Perhaps he asked for another binder. In the end, however, as governor, Romney did hire a lot of women.

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