Commentary: Now That's How You Win a Debate

Keith Boykin

Commentary: Now That's How You Win a Debate

President Obama won the second presidential debate and put himself back on track to win the election.

Published October 17, 2012

The results are in. President Obama won last night's debate and put himself back on track to win the election.

On every issue that came up last night, Obama won. On the economy, on immigration, on fair pay for women, and even on the Libya issue, which has dogged the White House for weeks, the president came out swinging. 

While Mitt Romney tried to blame Obama for losing millions of jobs, Obama reminded him that all the job losses took place in the first few months of his administration when the economy was hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs a month because of the Bush recession. Then Obama reminded the audience that since the recession ended, the economy has actually created 5.2 million new jobs in the past 31 consecutive months of private sector job growth.

When Romney tried to take credit for the auto bailout, claiming Obama did exactly what he urged him to do, Obama shot back again. It "just isn't true," said Obama as he reminded the audience of Romney's op-ed in the New York Times, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

When Romney said he would cut the deficit but offered no specifics on which deductions he would eliminate, Obama pounced, complaining that Romney hadn't offered any details on cuts he would make except for Big Bird and Planned Parenthood.

And when Romney rattled off his substance-free, five-point plan, Obama shot back again, arguing that Romney doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan to help the rich. Obama even pointed to Romney's recent interview on 60 Minutes where the former Bain Capital executive defended paying a lower tax rate than middle class people who work hard for every dollar they earn.

But the true genius of Obama's debate performance came in the last two minutes, when he finally brought up Romney's notorious comment that he wasn't concerned about 47 percent of Americans he thinks are victims and moochers. Obama nailed him on this in the final words of the debate, giving Romney no opportunity to respond, explain or apologize.

Obama was on the attack over and over again last night.

On immigration, the president finally brought up Romney's comments on self-deportation and reminded the public that Romney's top immigration adviser is the same guy who designed the infamous Arizona law.

On the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Obama hit Romney again, noting that when the governor was asked whether he would sign the bill, his response was "I'll get back to you."

And on the legacy of the Bush administration, after Romney gave a tortured answer to explain that he differed with Bush on energy policy, trade policy, a balanced budget and small businesses, Obama shot back. The president reminded the audience that even President Bush never advocated self-deportation of immigrants and never proposed to turn Medicare into a voucher program, as Romney has.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night came on the question of Libya, where President Obama took full responsibility for the attack on the Benghazi consulate and then turned the question into an aggressive counter punch against Romney. "I'm the president and I'm always responsible," the president said, but he added that Gov. Romney was busy issuing a press release about the attack before he knew all the facts. And the idea that the White House would exploit the tragedy for political purposes, Obama said, was "offensive."

After the president's strong performance, Republicans were left to complain about the debate moderator, Candy Crowley, arguing that she should not have corrected Romney when he falsely accused the president of not labeling the attack as an act of terror. But Crowley was right. The day after the attack, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden and said it clearly: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."

Here's some quick advice to Republicans. Democrats tried blaming the moderator for Obama's debate performance two weeks ago and it didn't work. If that's all you got, it shows you lost.

The snap polls taken by CNN and CBS last night also confirmed Obama's victory. Even 56 percent of the more conservative, business friendly audience at CNBC thought Obama won the debate. And CNBC host Larry Kudlow called the debate a "draw," which, coming from a conservative, pretty much means Obama drew blood from Romney.

The significance of this week's debate is that it returns the momentum back to President Obama with less than three weeks to go before the election. This was how President Obama got his groove back, wrote NPR. In fact, this is what the president almost always does in high pressure situations, at least for the past four years. Just when you think he's down and out and playing it too cool, he comes back with a master stroke for the win.

Traditionally, Obama is strongest when he looks like he's fighting hard and weakest, even among his supporters, when he's not, as during the government option debate for health care reform in 2010 or last year's debt deal.

If there is a lesson for the president it is that Americans like him more as a fighter than a unifier. Maybe that's why the president used the word "fight" so often in his debate remarks last night.

In contrast, Romney came across too aggressive as he tried to bully the moderator and control the rules, and yet I don't expect conservatives to complain about this as they did last week with Joe Biden. But Obama didn't back down. He pivoted from every question into an effective attack on Romney. While some worried in advance that his performance couldn't be too hot or too cold, he found just the right balance and came out pitch perfect.

I don't know why this President Obama didn't show up at the first debate two weeks ago, but I'm glad he's back.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for each week.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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