President Romney. Think about it, Democrats For those of you who have been lulled into a “no way” view of Mitt’s chances, the first presidential debate was a badly needed rude awakening. From your point of view, it had better be, because Romney walked all over President Barack Obama.
Actually, it was more a case of the president volunteering to be a floor mat, with his tentative — no, make that timid — approach to the challenger’s comparatively aggressive presentation. Time and again, Mr. Obama let Mr. Romney get away with explanations, justification and rationales for his campaign positions that were simply preposterous. When he did respond, the normally eloquent leader of the free world seemed to get lost in his old college-professor mindset, nearly mumbling his comments.
At times, he seemed almost as inept as the moderator, Jim Lehrer, who made one wonder if we could have been better off without him taking part. Obama appeared as if he didn’t want to be there either.
In the process, he managed to bring his momentum in this election to a crashing halt. While the impact of these debates is, uh, debatable, the fact is that the president could have used this first one to force Romney onto the ropes; instead, he let him not only slip away, but land a flurry of punches.
Much will be made about the fact-checking that has now become a part of the journalistic routine at events like this. An honorable pursuit, without a doubt, but it has limited impact, if any. First of all, both these guys played fast and loose with the truth. Their assertions about their policies and their opponent’s often were outright dishonest.
Beyond that, the sad reality is that voters don’t want to deal with honest complexity. We are lazy, preferring not to have to tax our brains about taxes or make the effort to exercise judgment over health-care reform. Mitt Romney and his handlers understand that, so he can routinely misrepresent his positions and get away with it. President Obama, to the extent that he did participate in the conversation, was taken over by his Professor Obama persona and the compulsion to bore.
Either that, or, as David Gergen, on CNN, observed: “I don’t think anybody’s ever spoken to him like that over the last four years. I think he found that not only surprising but offensive in some ways.” Certainly, President Obama was on the offensive this time. What’s interesting about Gergen’s reaction is that he has worked for a slew of presidents, both Republican and Democrat. So David knows a thing or two about keeping one’s opinions to himself in the Oval Office.
The short time remaining is packed with events that will determine whose office it will be next year. Of course we have economic news, like the slightly encouraging jobs report. And we have three more debates, beginning with the confrontation between the vice-presidential contenders. For sheer suspenseful entertainment value, that one has great potential, since we will all wonder whether Joe Biden can manage to make it through the entire evening without saying something so foolish he ends up embarrassing the ticket. Again.
More importantly, we have two more Barack Obama encounters with Mitt Romney, in which the president can actually show up. He mailed it in the first time around. Even when he wasn’t speaking, he was speaking volumes. The split screen showed him listening to Romney and not quite knowing what to do with what he was hearing. At least he wasn’t caught looking at his watch. One can only assume that his debate team had warned him how that had done in President George H.W. Bush. Need we mention that Bush the first was a one-termer?
If Barack Obama and his team don’t regard this bumbling performance as a slap in the face, he may be one, too.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.