President Obama let Mitt Romney run away with the trophy in the first debate tonight. The challenger was fluent and forceful. He looked directly at the president as he made his points. He came across as the one who cared more about America. For most of the debate, Obama looked down as the split screen showed Romney in a posture that suggested he was talking down to a timid student. At one point when Obama was speaking, Romney interrupted and amazingly, Obama conceded the floor to him. Instead of looking at Romney, Obama (when he looked up at all) seemed to plead with moderator Jim Lehrer to bring the debate to an end. Romney, in contrast, controlled Lehrer, directing the flow of questions.
Forget the facts. Fact checkers will tell you that Romney was wrong on this and that, as was the President. In these debates, style trumps substance. When Obama was running for president four years ago, he electrified the electorate with his newness, his near-mythical striving for the highest position in the land. That he was running against a party led by the reviled George Bush no doubt helped his candidacy.
But as incumbent, the magic seems to have left Obama. He was hesitant and tentative with Romney. He seemed ill at ease. There was hardly any passion behind his words. He combined his sentences with a drawn out “a..and” that became a distracting mannerism as the debate progressed. His rebuttals (again, we are not talking facts here but style) were weaker compared to Romney’s. In summing up the debate with his perspective on leadership, Romney said, “America is hurting today!” and then said that he would set America right. A visitor from Mars would have believed Romney. Obama, in contrast, asked us to simply believe that what he did in the last four years should convince us to vote for him. Unconvincing, to say the least.
Only toward the end did the President briefly come alive when he said that part of being a leader was to have a plan and that a leader had to sometimes say “no” to the extreme fringes of his party. He exposed Romney’s shortcomings in two sentences but that was about it. Obama’s relief was almost palpable when the debate finally ended.
As an Obama supporter, I am hoping that we have seen the best of Romney and the worst of Obama tonight. Certainly with his performance, Romney has repaired the damage of his “47%” remark. He has accomplished his mission for now and put the President on the defensive. Obama needs to practice an hour everyday looking directly at someone while locking horns with him on contentious issues. (Joe Biden, perhaps?) It’s okay to be polite, laid back and cool in private but in a debate that can change voter perceptions instantly, passion and conviction have to radiate from the candiate's whole being.
The verdict: Obama did not hurt himself but Romney elevated himself and was the clear winner. Please, Mr. President, shed your complacency, if that's what it is. Replace ice with fire. In the next two debates, don’t let the Governor take charge. You must. Four years ago, an "outsider" seized the momentum in his debates with a Republican challenger. We want that candidate back.