I watched last night's debate in a college setting, at a joint called Woody's in Ohio State's student union. The good news? The place was packed and though only three of nine TV screens were tuned to C-SPAN, the students not only followed the debate but were well-informed and vocal. More good news: They seemed sharply critical of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's various sketchy statements about all manner of things.
There's no question that Obama gave a better showing than he did the first time around. He was energized, no doubt, by his lackluster performance a coupla weeks back, the town hall format (which mostly is a showcase for bad questions coming from jes' plain folks), and moderator Candy Crowley's inability to let any real or imagined slight against the president go uncommented upon.
But the oddest thing about Obama's rap to me was that he was talking as if he hasn't been in office the past three-plus years. The way he talked about George W. Bush and the various situations he faced upon moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, you'd think he just called up to the bigs for the playoffs or something. He invokes the years since 2009 as if he just came back from vacationing off-planet. Does anyone else remember all the crowing that went on after Obama's "historic" first year in office? This is a president who basically was able to get everything he wanted—stimulus, healthcare, the sorts of military actions he wanted, a free-hand in surveilling enemies here and abroad, and more—and he has still reaped a whirlwind when it comes to a vaguely decent economy and America's standing in the world. Indeed, the Dems took a "shellacking" (his term) in the 2010 mid-term elections because of his legislative record, not in spite of it. By his own litmus tests— especially the unemployment rate—he's been a huge and undeniable failure. When it comes to foreign policy, does anyone really believe he's done more than drive down U.S. standing from the already-low place that his predecessor left it? And when it comes to a variety of other issues—ranging from executive power to raiding medical marijuana joints in states where they're legal to immigration—he's simply been godawful.
The strongest case against re-electing Obama remains the one that Clint Eastwood made during his empty chair performance: Bam might be a good guy, but he hasn't gotten the job done, and so it's time to let him go. The strongest case for re-electing Obama shared the stage with him last night. Mitt Romney bungled questions on the Benghazi attack and follow-up (there's no doubt that the administration dissembled in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which itself showcased inexcusable misjudgments in State Department security priorities) and he totally whiffed on issues such as gun control and immigration. Indeed, his signature flip-flopping was very much in evidence as he tried tacking away from clear positions (hey governor, maybe the reason gun crime and violence is way down is because virtually all states liberalized their gun laws and the Supreme Court started upholding the Second Amendment) toward some sort of mushy "centrism." Romney has more private-sector experience than Obama (who has exactly zero), but whatever free-enterprise bona fides he carried in his pockets stayed there in favor of rants against cheap Chinese imports and pledges to bring back manufacturing jobs (because nothing says first-world economy more than assembly lines, right?). Simply put, he doesn't inspire confidence that he would be a particularly effective and level-headed leader when it comes to domestic or foreign policy.
The flash polls I've heard about have Obama winning last night's tussle by about 7 percentage points, with as many as one-third calling it a tie. Which means maybe the presidential election will be tight right down to election day. Which is good for cable news, but bad for the large majority of libertarianish Americans who believe the government should do less in the economy and not promote a single set of traditional values. We just weren't represented on the stage last night and it seems unlikely that huge lack will be addressed not just before the next debate but November 6, 2012.