President Obama sought to regain his re-election momentum Tuesday in a second debate with Republican Mitt Romney, tangling with his rival over jobs, the auto industry bailout, energy, taxes and other issues.
The two put on a more heated and energetic show than in their first debate, often questioning or interrupting each other and disputing the other's claims. Both men walked the stage, each speaking directly to their questioners and gesturing to each other.
Obama, criticized after the first debate for looking down at his notes and appearing disengaged, watched Romney intently when he spoke.
After seeing an aggressive Romney score gains in polls following their initial encounter Oct. 3, Obama entered the debate intending to show more passion and make his case to the nation for a second four-year term.
He used the first question from the audience of uncommitted voters, which was about jobs, to blast Romney's opposition to the bailout of two of the three big U.S. automakers. Obama said that if Romney's way had prevailed, bankruptcy would have cost a million Americans their jobs.
Obama ridiculed Romney's claim to have a five-point plan to create jobs.
"He doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan, and that's to make sure people at the top play by different rules. ... That's been his philosophy," Obama said. "The last thing we need to do is go back to the same policies" that put the nation into an economic downturn four years ago, Obama said.
Romney blamed Obama for the economy's failure to generate more jobs.
"The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years, and they haven't put people back to work," he said.
Romney said of the automobile industry bailout that going through the bankruptcy process "was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened."
Obama responded immediately that "What the governor just said isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open." Obama said that without the government bailout he supported, "we would have lost a million jobs."
The high-stakes matchup came just three weeks before the Nov. 6 general election and as some states have already begun allowing voters to cast ballots by mail.
Romney repeated his campaign position that he will cut taxes for the middle class and lower rates 20% across the board without adding to the deficit. He declined to name loopholes and deductions he would eliminate as a way to recover the revenue lost by the lower rates.
"I'm going to bring rates down across the board. ... I'm not going to have people at the high end paying less than they pay now," he said. "I will not under any circumstances increase taxes on the middle class."
Obama responded that if someone had gone to businessman Romney with a plan like his own -- proposing to cut $8 trillion in revenue without specifying how he would recoup the lost dollars -- the idea would be laughed at as unbelievable.
"You wouldn't have taken such a sketchy deal, and neither should the American people, because the math doesn't add up," Obama said.
Obama reminded the audience that in the two years of tax returns Romney has made public, he paid 14% in federal taxes -- a rate far below most middle-income families despite his wealth and an annual income in excess of $20 million.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both say their tax plans would benefit the middle class and spur job creation, and both are suggesting their opponent's plan would do the opposite. (Oct. 16)
Romney pointed to his record in business as he insisted that his administration would find a way to make his tax and economic policies work.
"Of course they add up," he said. "I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget."
"I know what it takes to make an economy work," Romney said. "An economy with 23 million people looking for work, that's not a good economy."
The former Massachusetts governor was questioned by a woman in the audience who said she blamed former president George W. Bush's policies for much of the economic difficulty of the past four years and wanted to know what Romney would do differently from Bush.
Romney responded by saying he would balance the federal
budget and have tougher policies toward China.
"I'll crack down on China," Romney said. "President Bush didn't."
Obama responded: "Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China." He said his administration has pressed twice as many trade complaints against China than Bush did.
Obama said Romney was more extreme than Bush, noting that the former president did not try to cut off federal support for Planned Parenthood as Romney has promised.
" In some ways he's gone to a more extreme place when
it comes to social issues," Obama said of Romney.
They spoke in a town-hall-style meeting at Hofstra University before an audience of registered and undecided voters from Nassau County, N.Y.
Romney repeatedly attacked Obama's economic record and said he offers only more of the same: slow growth, high unemployment and more people on food stamps.
"If you are to re-elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get: a repeat of the last four years," Romney said. "We just can't afford a repeat of the last four years."
On illegal immigrants in the United States, Romney said, "We welcome legal immigrants into this country." He said he wanted to stop illegal immigration and impose workplace verification of immigration status but would oppose any amnesty for those now in this country without valid documents.
"I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally," Romney said.
He said he opposes driver's licenses for undocumented aliens and that young people should have "a pathway" such as military service "to becoming a permanent resident of the United States.''
Obama said that during the Republican primaries, Romney vowed to veto the DREAM Act legislation that would allow undocumented students to remain in the country and that Romney had emphasized "self deportation" as the solution to immigration problems.
"We can fix this system in a comprehensive way," Obama said.
He disputed Romney's charge that as president, he had failed to try to win passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
Romney defended his "self deportation" proposal: "We're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegal," Romney said. "Instead, let people make their own choice.''
Obama defended his administration's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the ambassador. He said he immediately ordered beefed-up security at all embassies and consulates in the region and a thorough investigation into what happened.
He blasted Romney for using the tragedy to try to score political points, noting that Romney put out a press release while the White House was still trying to learn the facts.
"You don't turn national security into a political issue," Obama said.
Romney said it was "more troubling" that the day after the attack, Obama continued his scheduled activities. including campaign events.
"This was not a demonstration. It was an attack by
terrorists. And this calls into question the president's whole policy in the
region," Romney said.
Obama said it was "offensive" that Romney would play politics with a tragedy that cost Americans their lives.
"The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and told the American people and the world ... that this was an act of terror," Obama said.
Romney immediately asserted that the president was wrong and that he had not called it terror. Obama insisted he did and said Romney should review the transcript. Candy Crowley, the moderator, interjected that the president was correct.
Answering a question about gun control, Obama said he would support reinstituting a ban on assault weapons, such as a federal law that expired, but said the nation needs to go further to address the causes of violence by improving schools and creating opportunity for young people.
Romney said he, too, wants to change a culture of violence but added, "I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns."
Crowley, the moderator, noted that Romney had supported an assault-weapon ban as governor of Massachusetts. Obama, at his next opportunity to speak, said, "Governor Romney was for an assault-weapon ban before he was against it."
Romney blasted Obama repeatedly on China policy, declaring "China's been cheating'' and manipulating its currency, keeping its value low in order to keep its product prices low.
Obama responded that "we have pushed them hard'' and that Chinese currency has risen 11% during his term as a result of administration policies. But he said a better way to deal with China is to boost U.S. exports, which in turn will encourage domestic job growth.
In closing, Obama cited the secretly recorded video of Romney speaking to contributors and saying 47% of the country sees themselves as victims. "Keep in mind who he was talking about," Obama said, naming veterans, students, retirees and others.
Romney, speaking before Obama in a closing argument, had said, "I care about 100 percent of the American people."
The second of three nationally televised debates, a week after their vice presidential running mates faced off, was held on the campus of Hofstra University, a private school with about 11,500 students at Hempstead on New York's Long Island.
Questions from the audience in Hofstra's basketball arena were submitted to Crowley in advance. She chose those who were allowed to pose their questions to the candidates.
Obama said beforehand that he expected to deliver a more energized performance than in his last debate, which produced gains for Romney in many polls and charges from Democrats that Romney had misrepresented his record and positions.
Going into the debate, president and opponent faced the challenge of engaging each other and appearing to dominate the discussion without seeming too negative. With the town hall format, they also had the task of appearing responsive and non-evasive in answering questions from voters in the hall while being mindful of how their answers and demeanor appeared to the broader national TV audience, which expected to run in the tens of millions of viewers.
For Obama, the pressure was intense from his own base to appear to be fighting more vigorously for what he believes. Obama had said his first debate performance was "too polite" after an evening that produced gains in polls for Romney and anxiety for Obama supporters.
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