Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Obama May Have Lost Tuesday's Debate

Ok, so Democrats are happy that President Obama decided to show up for Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, his second match with his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. He certainly came out swinging and scored some decisive points. But was Obama’s feistier, more spirited performance enough to move the needle? Did he get the job done?

While the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi at the hands of terrorists has consumed the right-wing punditry these past several weeks, Romney himself chose to focus on jobs and the economy, and for good reason.  A CBS Instant Poll after the debate showed that he won by 65%-34% on the economy. In the days ahead we’ll see a slew of new polls indicating whether or not either candidate received an appreciable bounce and if the debate in any way might impact the election. 

The president brought his A-Game, but it was his B-Game that was on display for most of the 90-minutes before an audience of eighty so-called independents (honestly, at this point in the campaign, how is it possible they’re still undecided? “Gee, as a woman, I’m still unsure whether I want to control what goes in and out of my vagina, or if I’m ok with rich old white men making those decisions for me!” Who are these people!?). The B-Game is all he has. He’s truly not a fighter. Deep down, he’s a gentleman, and gentlemen don’t street fight, which is how Romney battles.

But their roles and goals were switched from the last debate: the bar for Obama was set so low that he couldn’t fail, while the bar for Romney, fresh off his killer performance two weeks ago, was unrealistically high. Romney performs best when his back is to the wall, while Obama, given the monumental criticism he faced after the first debate, reignited his mojo. It was a lot easier for him to succeed given this landscape.  A CNN poll taken Wednesday found 73% said Obama’s performance exceeded expectations compared with 37% for who said Romney fared better than expected. But more telling was who "won:" the poll found that 46% went for Obama while 39% gave it to Romney. With a 4.5% margin of error, this certainly was no knock-out.

To be sure, there were moments that literally made me cringe. Mostly when Romney acted like an uber-entitled, duplicitous bully who believes that interrupting and shouting over the President of the United States, while also disrespecting the moderator and the rules, is acceptable behavior, if not de rigueur. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, Obama fought the war with what he has. While I believe it would’ve been conduct unbecoming a president had Obama met Romney’s child-like petulance with similar loutish, combative behavior, I would’ve preferred to see more Bill Clinton-style passion and forcefulness—fire in the belly—as well as much more detail and vision, both of which, especially on the economy, were in very short supply.

So what was essentially missing from the president? He would’ve benefited from more directly and aggressively going after Romney on the issues and his positions. When “Moderate Mitt” spun his tall tales about how he’s pro-education, pro-women, pro-middle class, pro-Medicare and pro-jobs, for example, Obama could’ve challenged him with:

•    “No, Gov. Romney, you, Rep. Ryan and your party seek to cut or eliminate Pell Grants and similar government aid for college students.”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, your policies and statements aren’t supportive of education and teachers. You and your party believe the Department of Education should be dismantled, and that we have enough teachers.”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, you, Rep. Ryan and your party do not champion women’s rights…in the workplace or involving their health and their own bodies.”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, you, Rep. Ryan and your party care about one thing: providing massive tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. You would like to cut all government assistance and give that money to the rich.  You’re like Robin Hood in reverse.”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, you’re not being honest about your statement, and my administration’s actions, about the auto industry. ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt’ is what you said.  This would’ve killed the auto industry. The banks weren’t giving them funding to survive. We bailed them out. We helped them survive and thrive, as their sales now prove. We saved a million jobs. You would’ve lost those million jobs.”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, you and your party are against every measure I and my Democratic colleagues in Congress have attempted to enact to create jobs.  I challenge you right now to tell Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans, before millions of Americans watching tonight, to pass my jobs bill!”
•    “No, Gov. Romney, you and Paul Ryan want to end Medicare as we know it, turning it instead into a costly and confusing voucher program, forcing seniors to go out shopping for insurance.”
•    “Gov. Romney, perhaps interrupting, shouting over someone and re-writing the rules is how it works for CEO’s in the boardroom, but that’s not how it it’s done in politics.”

Let’s be clear: the Obama we saw Tuesday night was infinitely stronger and more effective than the empty suit that showed up three weeks ago. He excited and fired up the base for sure. But better may not be what independent voters wanted or needed to see and hear. Next Monday night he’ll have another opportunity to close the deal. It’ll be fascinating to see which Obama shows up this time.  And, according to,  with Romney slightly leading in key battleground states such as Florida, Missouri, Colorado and North Carolina, and virtually tied with Obama in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, the Democratic base would be wise not to be too celebratory just yet.

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