A Matter of Purpose

President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the second presidential debate at
President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jack is a member of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

On a crisp Tuesday night at Hofstra University, two men made their cases for seeking the Presidency. With ideas, values and style in mind, the duo went back and forth, elaborating on their experiences and providing their positions. Each sought to convince a crucial block of Americans, the coveted undecided voters, that theirs was a path to recovery and success for the nation. As viewers, we were treated to a true exposition of the two leading candidates for America's most powerful position.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have two distinctly different ideas about what recovery, expansion and America itself should look like, and they put these values on display on Tuesday night. Governor Romney's success in the first debate gave him a singular focus for the next encounter: repeat, convince and win. President Obama had a challenging feat ahead, as he had to dig out of the rut he occupied and recoup his strength. Ninety minutes later, I believe that President Obama emerged with the win he needed, and the strength he had lost.

The rationale for Obama's success was written in the very format of the debate itself. As a town hall, the audience was visible, encircling the candidates and moderator. The President was able to excel because this is his arena. Talking with voters, moving about the space, commiserating, and grabbing the attention of the populace are all things that he does well. Even Romney conceded this basic idea, stating, "He's great as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision." Their argument was lost in the first debate, with the darkened audience and podium lecturing. President Obama mobilizes; he gets around and among the people, a skill no doubt learned as a community organizer. When his candid and eloquent speechmaking is combined with his affable personality in a crowd, Obama's message can shine through more easily.

On the other hand, what this setup gave to Obama, it took away from Romney. A successful businessman, he is better suited to the formalities of the first debate, which essentially amounted to a sales pitch. To say he lacks social skills would be disingenuous, but he succeeds when more of the spotlight (in this case, both figuratively and literally) is on him. While he provided much of the same message of a week ago, Obama's scintillating performance dulled Romney's efforts. While Obama and Romney both saw successes in the substance of the debate, Obama got the edge, and fairly early at that.

With undecided voters asking the questions, this debate covered more than the one preceding it did. The first query was a familiar one, discussing unemployment. Romney was quick to call on his gubernatorial record, and dragged his five-point economic plan to the forefront once more. The President quoted favorable jobs numbers, and, in a move really absent from the first debate, went on the offensive against Romney's plan, terming it a "one-point plan... to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."

As the debate shifted through energy to taxes, Obama's specificity shined through once more. He pledged to maintain the current policy for people earning less than $250,000, and a return to the Clinton-era tax rates for those making above that threshold. Romney sought to explain a plan to simplify the tax code, with a novel idea about voucher-based deduction, but he once again failed to explain specifically how he would fill the increased deficit incurred by lowering taxes. When the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, asked him if the arithmetic was there to back him up, he standoffishly replied, "Of course they [add] up." Three questions in, Obama had shown that he would not be walked over again, and had taken control of the discourse.

The "Big Bird" moment of this debate came during a question about workplace inequality. In providing an anecdote about increasing the number of women on his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts, Romney stated that he had been brought "whole binders full of women" as candidates for the positions. Once again, the Internet erupted at this comical turn of phrase, and it has served as Romney's legacy from the debate. More significantly, it was a clear and undeniable example of affirmative action, an idea Republicans have never been too cozy with. Governor Romney willingly and purposefully sought out and chose equally qualified women over men, which runs contrary to what much of his party's ideology has stated.

With the candidates moving around each other on the floor, this debate was far more personal than the others have been. One of Crowley's biggest duties was keeping the candidates to their time limits and making sure they didn't interrupt one another, transgressions which occurred rampantly on both sides.

Romney's biggest win of the night came in a question about immigration, where he correctly chastised Obama for not enacting immigration reform, which he had pledged to do in his campaign. Romney continued by stating that he would, in fact, move this reform along in his first year if elected. This issue is one of Obama's more glaring weaknesses, and Romney, to his credit, exploited it well.

As the debate wore on, the two men got cagier. Obama's most passionate moment came when he declared, "The suggestion that anybody on my team... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive." In referencing Romney's disparaging comments about how the situation in Libya was handled the day after the event, Obama made it clear that national security issues are not game for political maneuvering when lives have been lost. In fact, Crowley fact-checked Romney on the spot, by mentioning that Obama had called the event an "act of terror" the day after it happened, contrary to what Romney asserted. Romney momentarily faltered, Obama was energized, and the debate rolled to the finish. In his final speech, Obama explicitly called out the governor on his infamous "47 percent" comments, and was able to springboard to a successful conclusion.

By the end of the debate, what Democrats had hoped for had been realized. President Obama turned around and got back up to fight, a fact solidified by next-day polls. Governor Romney gave a solid performance, there is no doubt, but Obama was in his element. Purposeful and cogent, specific and powerful, President Obama proved why he had won the position in the first place. Should he win reelection in less than three weeks, this debate may go down as a turning point in this momentous and historic campaign.