How Obama aced the comeback

Editor’s Note: Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.”

Story highlights

Alan Schroeder: President Obama delivered a comeback performance in second debate

Schroeder: Obama connected with the audience, Romney less so

He says Romney's defining moments were too frequently negative

Schroeder: Substantively and stylistically, Romney operated in Obama's shadow

CNN  — 

So it looks like President Obama got the message. In his second debate with Mitt Romney, the president delivered a comeback performance that will stand as a model for future debaters of how to right a listing ship. Obama was as good in Hempstead as he was bad in Denver. In fact, this may have been the finest debate of his career and just at the moment when he needed it most.

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Navigating the tricky shoals of the town hall format, the president laid out a persuasive case for re-election, point by point, drawing sharp contrasts with his opponent while avoiding rudeness. Obama’s arguments were not always as succinctly stated as they needed to be, and he too often strayed far from the topic at hand. But by the end of the debate, he had checked off pretty much every item on his list of “Things I Should Have Done in Denver.”

Alan Schroeder

It was Obama the community organizer who showed up, a man with a message to sell and an audience to sell it to. His interaction with the participants was confident, engaged and energetic, all the qualities he had failed to muster in Round 1. He appeared to draw strength from the 82 citizens on the stage, strength that grew as the evening progressed.

At times Romney seemed taken aback by this fresh incarnation of the debater he had bested two weeks ago. Both substantively and stylistically, Romney operated in Obama’s shadow in this match, second banana to the president’s leading man. Clearly this was not the role Romney intended to play.

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    Romney’s defining moments were too frequently negative. His attempts to directly confront the president carried plenty of dramatic charge, but they didn’t quite play out the way they must have in rehearsal. These maneuvers left an impression more of petulance than leadership.

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    The thing that really gets Romney exercised in these debates is when he thinks he’s not getting his due, which means he wastes far too much time demanding another minute or the final say or a chance to go back to something from a previous answer. Romney may believe this assertiveness makes him look strong and in command. More likely it reinforces a negative perception that the candidate needs to dispel: that of a plutocrat grabbing every last crumb he thinks he deserves. The town hall debate was a particularly inappropriate setting for Romney to display this side of himself.

    Romney’s chief problem was that he did not connect to the audience as effectively as Obama did. This became apparent every time Romney began a response with “I appreciate that” or “that’s an important question,” words that signaled his discomfort with many of the topics the voters wanted to discuss, like equal pay for women, banning assault weapons or immigration.

    Obama’s big moments were more positive, especially, and unexpectedly, on the topic of Libya. Staring daggers at his opponent, the president said it was “offensive” for Romney to suggest that the White House had sought political gain from the murder of an American ambassador and three others. When moderator Candy Crowley backed up Obama’s version of events over Romney’s, the president got off one of the few funny lines of the night: “Could you say that a little louder?”

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    Obama also delivered a clever rejoinder in a back-and-forth about the candidates’ personal finances. After the president brought up his rival’s overseas investments, Romney cited Obama’s own holdings: “Have you looked at your pension?”

    “It’s not as big as yours,” came the answer, “so I don’t look at it that often.” Advantage, Obama.

    One of Romney’s lowest points came when a woman in the audience asked him to differentiate between himself and former President George W. Bush. The governor’s response might have been written by the staff of “Saturday Night Live:” “President Bush and I are different people and these are different times,” he said. “That’s why my five-point plan is so different from what he would have done.” Not exactly a sound bite for the ages.

    Before this debate, I wondered whether Obama would acknowledge the elephant in the room: his shoddy performance in Round 1. Would he make a joke about it, or tell a cute story about what Michelle had said that night? Turns out he didn’t need to. Obama’s performance spoke for itself.

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Schroeder.