Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?
It’s been interesting today, reading and listening to all the post-debate analysis. Following what most are agreeing was an unequivocal beat down of President Obama by Mitt Romney, many are wondering, What just happened? With all of the polls leading up to the debate favoring the Obama campaign, one would think the president would’ve ridden that momentum and brought the fight to Gov. Romney.
But President Obama apparently neglected to take his urgency pills before taking the stage in Denver last night. Romney, say most pundits, was the more confident, aggressive, and prepared candidate. He won the evening.
And President Obama?
Well, let’s just say the only “hope and change” his supporters are feeling after last night’s performance is the hope that he will change his approach for the final two debates.
As you might expect, there’s a ton of postmortem chatter spilling out across the Web and blogosphere. One report at Politico, titled “How Obama’s Debate Strategy Bombed,” dissects the possible reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance:
Multiple party strategists privately attributed Obama’s demeanor to an ailment that frequently affects incumbents: a fear of appearing too aggressive and risking a larger-scale misstep that could transform the campaign. Projecting a calm, reasonable — some said “presidential” — demeanor was the strategy during Obama’s debate-prep sessions outside of Las Vegas.
But as a result, Obama allowed Romney to set the terms for much of their Wednesday night faceoff at the University of Denver. Startling his supporters, Obama did not deliver almost any of the sharpest attacks that have defined his campaign against Romney, dwelling instead on missing details from Romney’s policy proposals. The former Massachusetts governor’s private-equity background, controversial personal finances, views on social issues and recently reported comments, disparaging Americans who do not pay income taxes, went entirely unmentioned.
At AlterNet, commentator Lynn Parramore defended Obama’s approach:
Obama did what anybody paying close attention would have known he would do. He played it safe. And he stuck to a rather dull rhetorical style because — he has a rather dull rhetorical style. Also because that’s what you do when you’re the frontrunner. You don’t say or do anything wild and crazy. You let your opponent jump up and down and make excitable noises. Which is precisely what Romney did. Some have read Romney’s stance as aggressive, others as pushy, but there’s one word that you’re unlikely to hear: “presidential.” Makes for good theatrics. But it won’t win you the White House.
But Chicago Public Media blogger Achy Obejas, usually an Obama supporter, is having none of that. She admonished Obama’s constituency with this:
Obama people, stop pretending. Stop trying to find the silver lining. Drop the crap about how Mitt Romney was a condescending jerk and vague on everything. Yeah, Romney was all that. And you know what? He still spanked Barack Obama in Wednesday night’s debate. Romney was smooth, easy going, clear, ended his sentences on actual periods and just kept jabbing at the president all night long.
Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta doesn’t let Obama off the hook for his “snippy,” “downbeat” performance, but she goes deeper in diagnosing the root cause for the president’s poor showing. She writes, “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.” She goes on to add that folks expecting a late-hour reemergence of the dynamic Obama of 2008 needs to awake from their denial. This Obama, she says, is no longer the new and shiny model from 2008, nor will he ever be again. She says:
Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.
His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.
As for the president, earlier today at a Denver rally he explained the previous evening’s less-than-triumphant proceedings by suggesting Romney caught him off guard. “When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. [But] the man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions … from the last year.” Mocking Romney’s smiling declaration that he would cut funding to PBS, Obama added, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”
I’m sure Obama’s supporters are glad that he’s able to find humor in last night’s ugly affair, but one wonders why he didn’t bring some of that snark last night.
After sifting through these and other commentaries, I got into a brief email chat with UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist, who also was puzzled by the president’s flat performance. Here’s a bit of our discussion:
ED: What the heck happened last night?
WIL: President Obama was so flat with his style points during the debate, that I’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s a plan. He’s either: 1) Working a “rope-a-dope” strategy where he’ll knock Romney out later when it really counts, or 2) He was thinking too much about candlelight dinner with Michelle for their 20th wedding anniversary.
ED: My wife said the same thing about the Obamas’ anniversary, but c’mon. The president’s whole life is spent multitasking — balancing the running of the country with the mundane tasks of telling the kids to do their homework and making sure he remembers the card and flowers for the anniversary. So, I can’t buy that one. But the rope-a-dope idea has merit. I’ve got to believe he was intentionally pulling punches last night. He seems to be working some sort of strategy, but did it possibly backfire? It’s awfully close to Election Day to be taking those types of calculated risks.
WIL: If Obama’s doing the rope-a-dope strategy, his aim is to strike fear in his Democratic base so that they’ll realize this election won’t be a cakewalk by any means. Democrats became lax in the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party-led GOP dominated. So the implicit message to the base is probably “Wake up, stand up, and get out the vote, like you did in 2008! Romney-Ryan is a stronger ticket than McCain-Palin. I need your help!”
ED: So, do you see him rebounding in round two, or is this the Obama we get now?
WIL: I think Obama will drop all of the obvious power punches (47 percent, flip-flopper, etc.) on Romney in the next two debates, but he will still need a strong voter turnout to win. On the other hand, if the Prez was distracted last night and thinking about Michele … well, as a married guy I can’t blame him. However, Michelle will always be his first lady. If he’s not careful, she won’t be ours much longer.
Much more will be said about last night between now and the next debate. And once the new round of poll numbers starts appearing, the pundits will have even more fodder with which to fill their cable news segments. But, if nothing else, last night’s debate should remind us of one thing: nothing is decided until the polls close on the evening of Nov. 6.