In form, President Barack Obama came back strongly in Tuesday's debate with Mitt Romney, but substantively he continues to lag behind the Republican candidate. That's because the president has a record to defend, and it isn't a good one.
Television being what it is, the president looked and sounded good, but the air seems to have gone out of his messianic balloon as voters focus more on facts and less on spin.
If promises mean anything -- and they don't to most politicians -- Mr. Romney hit the president where it hurts: on his failure to live up to most of his promises.
The president claimed his administration has "created" 5 million jobs. Mr. Romney countered that an equal number of jobs have been lost. He also noted correctly that government doesn't create jobs; the private sector does, and because of the uncertainty over the effects of Obamacare and whether tax cuts will be allowed to expire and new ones imposed, businesses are reluctant to hire people.
Mr. Romney mentioned the promises candidate Obama made in 2008. They included cutting the deficit in half (it has doubled on his watch) and reducing health insurance premiums (Mr. Romney claims they have gone up $2,500 per year). Mr. Romney said one in six Americans now lives in poverty, 47 million are on food stamps, economic growth is where it was when Mr. Obama took office and the president's "apology tour" has not made us safer.
The president tried to replay his class warfare script, asking the wealthy to "pay a little bit more" in taxes, but even if all their wealth were seized, it wouldn't run the government for long. Spending is the problem, and Mr. Romney missed an opportunity to focus on wasteful spending, as detailed in Republican Sen. Tom Coburn's new "Waste Book," which relays in agonizing detail the waste of taxpayer dollars.
The president, clearly worried about recent polls showing an erosion of support among women, brought up the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which guarantees, according to the White House, "that victims of pay discrimination can effectively challenge unequal pay." But even the White House is not immune to claims of dispensing unequal pay. According to a report published in April by the Washington Free Beacon, "the 2011 annual report on White House staff revealed that the median annual salary for female White House employees was 18 percent less than male employees -- $60,000 compared to $71,000." In 2008, Deroy Murdock of the Scripps Howard News Service determined from online Senate salary records posted by the watchdog group LegiStorm that Senator Obama paid female staffers in his office "... just 83 cents for every dollar" made by men.
The president said he called the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi "acts of terror" in Rose Garden remarks "the day after the attack," which is true. However, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote that the president did not say "terrorism" in those remarks and that "it took the administration days to concede that it was an 'act of terrorism'" unrelated to the "Innocence of Muslims" video that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice initially and repeatedly claimed incited the attackers.
After the debate, moderator Candy Crowley said on CNN, "(the administration) spent two weeks telling us this was about a tape and that there was this riot outside the Benghazi consulate, which there wasn't."
When voters are considering whether to "fire" a president, they want to know if the one they might hire is up to the job. The first two debates show Mr. Romney is up to the job. The final debate Monday is on foreign policy. It will give Mr. Romney an opportunity to close the sale with voters. The president's record on that subject is no better than his record on the economy.