President Barack Obama did what he had to do in his second debate with Mitt Romney. He showed enough fight to revive fellow Democrats dispirited by his soporific performance in their first encounter. He threw Mr. Romney on the defensive but still didn't offer much rebuttal to his foe's charge that a second Obama term would be little different from the first.
The president finally hammered at Mr. Romney's "sketchy" breakdown of his five-point plan to reduce the deficit through an end to unspecified tax loopholes for the wealthy. But he failed to offer any new details of his own or how the country would fare better economically over the next four years.
Instead, he ticked off his first-term accomplishments more effectively than before: cutting middle-class and small-business taxes, ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq, and salvaging the auto industry that Mr. Romney admitted he was willing see go bankrupt. Mr. Romney argued that he favored "a managed bankruptcy" to save it, but Mr. Obama noted it was the federal transfusion that enabled the car companies to stay open and workers on the job. His response amounted to a more detailed version of Joe Biden's glib but effective summary: "General Motors is alive and Bin Laden is dead."
Only at the very end of the debate did Mr. Obama jab at Mr. Romney's chief Achilles' heel -- his revealing, closed-door rap on "the 47 percent of Americans" who don't pay federal income taxes. He paraphrased Mr. Romney in identifying them as "victims who refuse personal responsibility."
Mr. Obama asked the audience to "think about who he [Romney] was talking about." He proceeded to list "folks on Social Security who have worked all their lives, veterans who have sacrificed for this country ... soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll taxes, gas taxes, but don't make enough income" to pay taxes on it.
The president's closing statement was a major improvement on his weak pitch in the first debate, in which he wailed that he wasn't a perfect person or a perfect president but was doing the best he could. That contention only fed into Mr. Romney's recitation of Mr. Obama's first-term inability to cut the unemployment rate back to pre-George W. Bush days.
As for Mr. Romney, he continued his first-debate tenacity in painting the first Obama term as an abysmal failure, and a bit more abrasively, on the second time around. He cited 2008 candidate Obama's promises to cut the deficit, noting he instead added to it, and again sold himself as Mr. Fix-it with the business record to match. But Mr. Obama threw the Romney success formula back at him: "You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away the pensions and you still make money."
In all, their second debate returned the campaign to the basic difference between the two nominees: Mr. Romney's insistence that unfettered free-enterprise can cure the economic stall if only government will get out of the way, vs. Mr. Obama's argument that only true government-business cooperation can do the trick.
In the verbal tug-of-war between them over who can save the struggling American middle class, for all of Mr. Romney's expressed concern, he must yet overcome his image as an urgent but empathy-impaired man of great wealth, and his damaging sermon to the fellow-rich, writing off that 47 percent of public moochers.
Mr. Obama and his strategists seem still convinced that this perception of Mr. Romney will carry the day for them. But the president may need a more persuasive case for what he aims to accomplish in a second term, not yet adequately offered beyond continuing to push that heavy boulder of economic recovery up the hill.
With the final debate Monday scheduled to focus on foreign policy, Mr. Obama's handling of the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, no doubt will be challenged again. He was helped in the second debate by Mr. Romney's factual error in saying Mr. Obama was tardy in identifying it as such. But the debaters will almost certainly find a way to return to the argument over the economy in this last chance each will have at persuading millions of undecided viewers.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.