Barack Obama supporters with long memories might have come into this debate fondly remembering a "Saturday Night Live" skit from early in the Obama administration, and hoping that something like it might emerge at Hofstra University.
In that skit, at a time when the fierce, foul-mouthed Rahm Emanuel was still White House chief of staff, the Emanuel character falls asleep in the Oval Office and dreams of Obama meeting with three Republican senators who are resisting the pork in his spending bill. As the senators push back, Emanuel whispers fiercely, “Get angry.” Obama does just that.
He grows so quickly out of his meek, unflappable self that his clothing shreds from the strain of his bulging muscles, and he emerges as an Incredible Hulk-like, not-so-placid president. One of the stunned Republicans asks, “Oh, my God! What happened?” And Emanuel says: “What happened was, you made Barack Obama angry. And when you make Barack Obama angry, he turns into The Rock Obama.”
The Rock then throws two of the senators through the Oval Office window and projects menace so effectively that the John McCain character pre-emptively defenestrates himself. That’s when the Emanuel character wakes up and finds himself in the presence of the real Obama: no huge muscles; no scary, volcanic anger.
In Hempstead tonight, The Rock Obama didn’t show up. But someone a lot more alive than the Obama of the first debate did.
From the first question, Obama wasted no time in responding to Romney’s answer to a 20-year-old student, who asked whether he’d be able to find a job. Romney outlined his five-point plan, and Obama said: “He doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has one-point plan, and that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Not The Rock Obama, but not the passive Obama of the first debate, either.
Romney certainly didn’t back down. At one point, on the question of whether Obama has cut drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, they had a brisk back-and-forth. “It’s just not true,” Obama said. “It’s absolutely true,” Romney responded. And, as Obama continued to argue the point, Romney snapped: “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”
The Obama of the first debate was not as vigorous in working the moderator on the question of who was getting the right amount of time. And Romney worked the umpire vigorously, too.
But for the average viewer, trying to figure out who was being truthful on energy, the exchanges were not all that helpful. Romney told the story of a coal-state worker who pleaded with him: “Please, save my job.” And went on to say the Environmental Protection Agency is blocking coal plants. The Denver debate's Obama would have been scribbling notes. The Hofstra version came back with: “When you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and said, 'This plant kills.'”
One thing stood out: Romney’s claim of American energy independence in eight years, which seems inordinately optimistic.
But the flurry of conflicting numbers and yes-I-am-no-you’re-not had to leave at least some viewers scratching their heads.