The first debate: assertive Romney, listless Obama

    Maybe he didn’t relish the idea of spending his 20th wedding anniversary with Mitt Romney. Maybe his demanding day job, which is also his night job, didn’t leave him sufficient time to prepare. Maybe he was simply out of practice. Maybe he figured that being assertive was un-presidential. Maybe he just left his A game on the basketball court.

    Whatever the reason, or mix of reasons, the bottom line last night was clear: Barack Obama lost the first debate to Mitt Romney. The president too often came off like a semi-somnolent headmaster serving up a lecture under the sway of half an Ambien.

    But that’s just how I saw it. How the persuadable voters saw it, I have no idea. We’ll have to wait for the weekend polls on that. For now, however, Obama joins Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in the history books; much like Obama, those guys were also defeated in their initial debates as incumbents – in 1984 and 2004 respectively. Let it be recorded, for what it’s worth, that both those guys won re-election anyway.

    I mentioned in a newspaper column last weekend that Obama, for all his eloquent speechifying, was often an erratic performer on the debate stage in 2008. Sometimes he was crisp, concise, and appropriately combative. Other times he meandered at length, wandering into wonky thickets and never coming out. Last night, he was back in meander mode, allowing Romney to rhetorically roam at will. And Romney, to his credit, took full advantage. Where the president was sluggish and passive (he gave the impression that he didn’t want to be there), Romney was doggedly assertive (and seemed to relish bring there).

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Have I yet brought up a single issue? Nope. I’m talking optics, people. TV is a visual medium. Romney won the visuals. Obama might have won the visuals if he had chosen to take the fight to his opponent, but, apparently in the interests of playing it safe, he ceded the playing field.

    It’s inexplicable that Obama barely tried to tie Romney to the Republican party – the same party that is viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of self-identified moderate voters, thanks to that party’s relentlessly rightward drift. It’s inexplicable that Obama never once invoked George W. Bush or demanded that Romney explain how his tax, budget, and economic agendas differ markedly from the Bush policies that helped trigger the great recession. And it’s particularly inexplicable that Obama never once mentioned the fat-cat fundraising video where Romney depicted 47 percent of the American people as lazy entitlement junkies, at least for the purpose of forcing Romney to play defense and explain himself.

    Instead, Obama was as scintillating as a think-tank scholar. No offense to think-tank scholars, who do fine work, but I doubt that viewers last night were jonesing to hear Obama’s listless disquisitions on, say, Social Security. Social Security, for Pete’s sake – that should’ve been right in Obama’s wheelhouse. Moderator Jim Lehrer lobbed him a softball at a speed of roughly four miles an hour (“Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?”), and Obama still managed to whiff.

    Obama goes: “You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position…” Wrong. An effective debater draws a contrast, and put his opponent back on his heels. Obama should’ve invoked the conservative Republican desire to end the Social Security entitlement, recited some of Paul Ryan’s attacks on Social Security, and compelled Romney to either distance himself from the Republican base – or defend it. Obama blew his opportunity. A passive debater is a losing debater.

    The same thing happened in the closing minutes, when Lehrer gave Obama another softball. This time, Lehrer placed it on a tee – and Obama still couldn’t hit it. The president was asked to talk about the role of government. Does it get any easier than that? Yet again, Obama had a golden opportunity to tie Romney to the (tea) party that wants to shred the safety net – and compel Romney to defend himself.

    Instead, Obama demurred. He mailed in a few stock lines (“the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed”), and ceded the floor to Romney – who happily took full advantage, invoking the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, all while managing to land a final flurry of punches about how “trickle down government” has ill-served the jobless and the “people in poverty.”

    Mitt Romney, champion of the “people in poverty.” And hey, why not? In reality, those “people in poverty” are members in good standing of Romney’s reviled 47 percent, but you would never have known that from the debate, because Obama never deigned to call him on it.

    There was much more, of course. Obama, even when touting his health reform law, never bothered to list the tangible benefits – like the young adults who can stay on their parents’ insurance plans, or the guaranteed coverage for kids with preexisting conditions, or the fact that insurance companies can no longer cap sick people’s coverage. What was missing was the human dimension. One can only imagine how Bill Clinton would have handled that one.

    And after Romney vowed to repeal the health reform law, Obama inexplicably failed to quote what Romney said just the other day – about how uninsured people can always take themselves to the emergency room. An effective debater would have compelled his opponent to explain that one, especially in light of the fact that when Romney was championing health reform in Massachusetts, he said he wanted to reduce the ranks of the uninsured in order to ease the burden on ERs. No matter; on that issue last night (as on many others), Romney escaped unscathed.

    We’ll see how the buzz plays out over the next few days. Persuadable voters may well decide that Romney warrants a fresh look. One debate can’t make or break a campaign – so said Paul Ryan last Sunday – but two debates might. Obama would be well advised to bring his A game next time.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal