The following is a Wall Street Journal editorial:
President Obama bounced off the canvas with a more spirited debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday night, as everyone expected he would. He was animated and on the attack. The question we kept asking as the evening wore on, however, is what does he want to do for the next four years?
At least two questioners put the point directly, yet Mr. Obama never provided much of an answer. Sure, he wants to hire 100,000 more teachers, as if there is the money to hire them or it would make much difference to student outcomes.
He wants to invest in “solar and wind and biofuels, energy-efficient cars,” which probably means more Solyndras and A123s (see nearby). He wants to raise taxes on the rich-that’s one thing he’s really passionate about. Oh, and he does want to pass the immigration reform he said he’d propose four years ago but never did propose in his first two years when his party controlled Congress and he might have passed it.
But otherwise, what’s his case for four more years? Judging by Tuesday’s debate, the President’s argument for re-election is basically this: He’s not as awful as Mitt Romney. Mr. Obama spent most of his time attacking either Mr. Romney himself (he invests in Chinese companies), his tax plan as a favor for the rich (“that’s been his history”) or this or that statement he has made over the last year (“the 47%,” which Mr. Obama saved for the closing word of the entire debate).
The paucity of this promise, the difference between now and four years ago, was never clearer than in the President’s response to the young man who said he’d voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but is less optimistic now. Mr. Obama responded by reciting his achievements-ending the Iraq war, “health-care reform to make sure insurance companies can’t jerk you around,” more Wall Street regulation, the auto bailout and more jobs.
As for the next four years: He said he has a plan “for manufacturing and education and reducing our deficit in a sensible way, using the savings from ending wars to rebuild America” and pursuing “the energy of the future.” Then he attacked Mr. Romney again.
The Republican followed by reciting the economic failings of the last four years, piling on fact after depressing fact. “I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a repeat of the last four years. We just can’t afford four more years like the last four years,” Mr. Romney said.
It was his most effective argument of a generally good but not great night. It is also the fundamental choice that Americans face in this campaign.
Mr. Romney could have done better making the case for his agenda, in particular explaining why his policies will work better than Mr. Obama’s. Mr. Romney is rarely good on the why. He was most persuasive on oil prices and tax-rate cuts for small business, least effective in missing a chance to mention Mr. Obama’s many failed energy investments while claiming to love solar and wind power as much as the President does. But the biggest contrast in the agendas for the next four years is Mr. Romney’s willingness to put ideas on the table-Medicare reform, tax reform-that meet the economic and fiscal problems of our time.
No doubt much of the media attention will focus on the exchange over Benghazi, which we agree was Mr. Romney’s weakest moment. He let the President get away with some scripted high dudgeon over politicizing the attack, without pointing clearly to the State Department testimony that a request for more security was denied.
We should point out, however, that he was more right than wrong about Mr. Obama’s remarks the day after the attacks. Mr. Obama used the words “acts of terror” only at the end of his remarks that day and in passing, and well after he had made an indirect and defensive reference to the anti-Islamic video. Moderator Candy Crowley was wrong to put her thumb on the scales for Mr. Obama in this exchange.
Mr. Romney will have a chance to do better on foreign policy next week, but Mr. Obama seems out of ammunition for the next four years.
A version of this article appeared October 17, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.