President Obama said he accepts responsibility for the death of four Americans in the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, as he sought to breathe new life into his faltering re-election campaign with a strong debate performance on Tuesday night.
Going head to head with Mitt Romney in New York, Obama took a far more aggressive tone than in the first debate, which he was widely seen to have lost by being too passive and failing to engage with his challenger.
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job but she works for me,” he said. “I’m the president and I’m always responsible.
“The suggestion that anyone in my team, the secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we have lost four of our own is offensive.
“That’s not what we do,” Obama said, turning to face Romney. “That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
Obama has managed to overturn the Republican Party’s traditional lead on foreign policy and played to the strength in the debate by highlighting the death of Osama Bin Laden on his watch.
However since the vice presidential debate last week between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, the Republican campaign has sought to blame Obama for the death of the US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton tried to take some of the heat of the president in the last few days by accepting responsibility for the violent 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
However Obama decided he could not hide behind one of his cabinet members on the issue.
“I am ultimately responsible, these are my folks, I’m the one who has to greet the coffins when they come home,” he said.
Obama was responding to Romney, who had accused him not only taking too long to identify the true cause of the attack on the embassy, but of then leaving the White House to campaign.
“The buck does stop at his desk and he takes responsibility for that failure,” Romney said. “It was terrorist attack, it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.
“When apparently we didn’t know what happened, the president flies to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser. These actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance.”
However Obama criticized Romney for trying to make “political points” by staging a press conference criticizing the White House while the attack in Libya was still happening.
“You don't turn national security into a political issue certainly not right when it's happening,” he said.
The president’s subdued approach to the first debate was viewed as a game changer, with the Romney campaign seeing its poll numbers climb in the wake of his strong performance, closing the gap on Obama.
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Tuesday’s debate was far more combative. The two men prowled the stage keen to interrupt each other, reflecting how important they both believed a strong showing was.
Criticised by Democrats for failing to go after Romney when the Republican said things they thought were inaccurate in the first debate, Obama frequently challenged his claims.
"What Governor Romney just said just isn't true,” the president said when responding to one Romney attack on the economy. “Not true,” Obama repeated at several points during the debate.
However Romney was not content to take Obama’s more aggressive stance sitting down, telling the president not to interrupt him.
“That wasn’t a question, you'll get your chance in a second,” he told Obama at one stage, motioning for him to be quiet as the two tried to dominate the stage.
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As well as foreign policy the candidates were also quizzed on domestic US issues including the economy, the issue that more than anything will decide the election.
Dismissing Romney's claim that he had a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama said, "Governor Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
"That's been his philosophy in the private sector," Obama said. "That's been his philosophy as governor. That's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate. You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less."
Obama also took a swipe at Romney's personal wealth when he was pressed on how much money he had himself. "I don't look at my pension, it's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long," he sad.
Romney in turn hit Obama for failing to create as many jobs as he had promised, arguing there were "23 million people struggling to find a job".
"The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven't put America back to work," he said. "We have fewer people working today than when he took office."
Unlike the first debate the format of Tuesday’s clash was in the style of a Town Hall meeting, with the two candidates taking questions from members of the specially selected audience.
And the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, frequently had to step in to police the two candidates with a firm hand as they itched to correct each other.
At one stage Crowley had to cut the president off to give Romney a go, she told Obama: "Don’t go away though."
“I’m here,” the president responded. Which unlike the first debate, he certainly was.
The third and final debate, on foreign policy, will be held on Monday 22 October. Election day is Tuesday 6 November.Suggest a correction