This debate was never going to be easy for Mitt Romney. After his evisceration of Barack Obama in the first presidential debate, encapsulated by the New Yorker cover of Romney talking to an empty chair, it was certain that Obama would be rigorously schooled before the second debate.

Obama’s performance 13 days ago was so anaemic that some even speculated whether, subconsciously at least, he still wanted to be President. But there was renewed vigour in this performance – a refusal to display passivity of the sort that ruined the Democrats’ night in Denver. The Town Hall debate format helped too: the need to engage with the audience’s questions made it harder for Obama to revert to his remote, professorial style.

Where Romney’s attacks in the first debate were too often left unanswered, here Obama displayed a relish for confrontation, notably on Romney’s policy flip-flops. Obama learned from Joe Biden’s relative success in the vice-presidential debate without over-reaching to appear rude.

Clearly, Obama was the great variable from the first debate. Romney stumbled at times; but that he looked relatively worse than in Denver was less a reflection of his own performance than the measured aggression of Obama. Once again, Romney’s lack of specifics in his tax plan – Ronald Reagan had far more specifics when he ran in 1980 – proved an easy target, and he failed to capitalise on a question about Libya, leading to moderator Candy Crowler controversially ‘fact-checking’ in Obama’s favour. Nevertheless, especially considering that the questions asked by the audience would have pleased Democrats more than Republicans, Obama’s edge here was nowhere near Romney’s in the first debate. Romney made some effective attacks on Obama’s first term and the case that America should not trust Obama to do what he has failed to in four years.

But the effect of his Obama critique was somewhat diluted when a question concerning George W Bush came up. With Romney struggling to disassociate himself from Bush’s thinking on economic policies, Obama audaciously painted Bush as a comparative moderate. Avoiding expediently saying that Bush and Romney were essentially the same, Obama praised Bush while arguing that Romney ‘has gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy’, notably on Medicare, abortion and immigration. Regardless of who wins this election, Obama’s attack highlighted, as Jeb Bush has recently drawn attention to, that Republicans’ emphasis on social issues may not be suited to the demographic shifts taking place in the country.

There was one man neither candidate dared criticise. As this campaign has progressed it has become increasingly clear that Bill Clinton’s presidency has been widely reinvented as a period of nirvana for the United States. Rather than his lurid private life or failures to prepare America either for the rise of China or Al-Qaeda, the Clinton years have now become a byword for steady economic growth, low unemployment and general contentment.

The 1990s are really the new 1950s. Just as the ‘50s were, the 1990s have now become equated with peace and prosperity; everyone wants them back. The spectre of the Clinton presidency was crucial in both parties’ conventions – while Clinton’s speech was the highlight of the Democratic Convention, his presidency was used as a counterpoint to Obama’s failings at the Republican Convention. Americans long for a return to the 1990s because, frankly, life seemed easier – economists had rendered depressions obsolete and, in a unipolar world, the country was hegemonic.

Though Romney did not evoke Clinton by name, his key pitches – economic competence and a track record of bipartisanship – were exactly those Clinton’s presidency is remembered for. Obama was more specific, with his line that ‘we can go back to the tax rates we had when Bill Clinton was president’ suggesting that therein lay the key to matching his feat of creating 23 million new jobs. The simplicity behind such an argument is obvious – but both candidates are far more effective attacking their opponents than making a positive case for their own policies. In such an environment, the manner in which the Democrats and Republicans collude to prevent other parties from being represented in presidential debates, as the arrest of the Green Party presidential nominee for trying to enter the debate drew attention to, is utterly depressing.

America’s economic state and the increasingly paralysing partisanship in American politics means that whoever wins next month will have to confront the very real spectre of decline. That the title of the US version of Edward Luce’s new book replaced the word with ‘descent’ because the mere mention of ‘decline’ was deemed so unpalatable to Americans shows how difficult this will be. Both Obama and Romney will argue otherwise – they have to to have a chance of getting elected – but Americans will not be treated to a Clinton third term.

Tags: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, US politics