US presidential debate: Obama gets his game on

President Obama gave a much improved performance in the second of three presidential debates. EPA/Win McNamee

The president probably wished he could have taken the shot again after his listless debate performance two weeks ago.

There are no do-overs in politics. But then, in the second debate in New York, he just about managed to hit a pretty good one out of the rough.

One of the criticisms from liberals after the first debate is that Obama’s heart wasn’t in it. That the president wasn’t interested in making the aggressive and affirmative case for why he deserved a second term. I’m always sceptical about these attempts to psychoanalyse politicians. And it seems bizarre to read so much into an hour and a half of theatrical performance as opposed to the president’s record over the last three years.

In any case, you’re not going to be hearing any of those complaints from Democrats this time around. Obama was passionate and eager to challenge Republican candidate Mitt Romney on policy facts and ideological differences. At one point, moderator Candy Crowley commented that the president would field the next question. “Looking forward to it,” he replied. It looked as if he genuinely meant it.

Who knows exactly how independents will judge the performance, but the president certainly fired up his base. And that’s hardly insignificant. Increased enthusiasm amongst Republicans accounted for much of Romney’s gains in the polls after the first presidential debate. And inspiring supporters is especially important for the president since the Democratic coalition includes many demographics that don’t always vote in large numbers.

For his part, Romney didn’t flop but this wasn’t the commanding performance we saw on in the first debate. My colleague David Smith frequently says that anger and passion are important in these formats but that it’s very difficult to channel these emotions effectively. This was clearly on display tonight. Obama hit his crescendo at the right moments while talking about the “47%” and defending his administration against accusations that they played politics with the Libya tragedy. Romney, on the other hand, seemed most perturbed when discussing the debate rules and whose turn it was to talk.

One of the more telling points of the whole evening came during the opening question from a college student worried about his job prospects after graduation. After hitting his talking points on college affordability Obama quickly pivoted to a discussion of manufacturing and Romney’s past opposition to the auto industry bailout. Most college-educated New Yorkers probably aren’t going to end up working at General Motors.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take centre stage at the second debate, held in a “town hall” format. EPA/Michael Reynolds

But Obama’s answer wasn’t really directed at 20 year old Jeremy Epstein. It was to the undecided voters in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, and especially Ohio. Both candidates’ path to the presidency runs through the Midwest and it will be very difficult for either candidate to win if they don’t carry Ohio. As such, it was hardly surprising that both Obama and Romney were trying to steer discussion towards issues that are especially pertinent to this area of the country.

So what effect will the debate have on the polls? The unhelpful but intellectually honest answer is that it’s difficult to know. But I can say with some certainty that Obama supporters who are hoping for a Romney style post-debate surge will be disappointed.

Even though the president was leading by a fairly significant margin after the Democratic National Convention the fundamentals have always predicted a tight election. As such, Romney’s improvements over the last two weeks are impressive but perhaps not entirely shocking given that this was always supposed to be a horse race. Obama might see some modest gains but it’s difficult to dramatically change the dynamics of an election that by all accounts should be close.

Nevertheless, in a closely fought contest, small gains can be significant. And the president did what he could to help his case tonight.