Heading into Wednesday night’s presidential debate, expectations for the president were high. Since the Democratic National Convention, he’s been riding a swelling wave of support.
Obama’s chances at re-election were compounded in the weeks leading up to the debate. Romney’s “47 percent” video, the gaffe heard round the world, as well as his tepid reception at the Republican National Convention helped push Obama’s lead in crucial swing states Ohio and Florida to near-insurmountable territory. His chances of winning the election were — just a week ago, around 90 percent — according to political statistics guru Nate Silver.
Last night appeared to change the tides. From opening statements on, Mitt Romney appeared in control: His statements were better-packaged, his jabs incisive and his disposition confident.
Obama, on the other hand, appeared uncomfortable — staring at the ground during Romney’s remarks instead of staring back at his opponent, as the Republican candidate did — and worse, was not able to defend his current policies or promote new ones effectively.
Obama seemed to be committed to non-antagonistic defense. Maybe this was by design. Either way, it was a disaster: This close to the elections and during such a trying time for our country, his display will surely make at least some undecided voters question whether they want a man with such timidity as their commander-in-chief.
Indeed, early polls show the debate having a negative effect on the president’s image. Even his supporters have so far had no defense for him other than, “well, he’ll do better next time.”
While Obama lost last night’s debate by pretty much any measure, it’s not clear that this will significantly alter his chances of winning next month. There’s not much historical data showing that debate performance has permanently adverse effects on a candidate’s chances at winning — a fact that holds even truer for incumbents.
In this case, the “curse of the incumbent” is particularly acute: Obama is still wedded to the soaring changes he promised in 2008. That’s a glaring vulnerability Romney was able to exploit: While the country’s certainly better off, in terms of job and economic growth, than it was four years ago, the U.S. is hardly the monolith it was as it charged into the 21st century.
Romney seized this opportunity to question the effectiveness of Obama’s policies and bolstered his attacks against ObamaCare and Medicare policy by citing polls and studies that ostensibly showed broad discontent with the president’s crowning achievements.
The real shocker was that Romney was able to effectively dodge two key facts: one, that he was himself the godfather of ObamaCare, instituting mandatory health care in Massachusetts during his time as governor there — a popular program that has resulted in virtually every resident of the state being insured. And two, the Romney-Ryan plan is effectively to dismantle the Medicare program, replacing it instead with a voucher system.
But it wasn’t just that Romney effectively dodged these facts. It was just as much Obama who dropped the ball by not pointing these contradictions out. That theme seems to have defined the night.
Rather than point to Romney’s time at Bain Capital, or the 47 percent comment, or the absence of any foreign policy from the GOP candidate’s platform, Obama gave long-winded and enervated rebuttals to his dominating challenger.
The one plank of Romney’s platform Obama seemed to have a response to was the Republican’s tax policies: He pointed out that the candidate’s plan calls for simultaneous tax cuts and increased spending—up to a trillion dollars of it, in fact. He went after Romney on the math, because the numbers don’t add up; there’s simply not enough money to pay for everything Romney wants while also cutting revenue.
But even here, Romney dipped and dodged and we still don’t know how he plans to abide by both those promises.
Romney didn’t really win the debate on Wednesday as much as the president lost it. While Obama may have spoken more truth (though just barely), Romney was in charge: He was more assertive, seemingly in command of the facts and able to package his policies into bite-sized pieces.
What remains to be seen is whether last night was a touchdown for Romney, or just a field goal and whether Obama is able to play defense for the remainder of the election season. He doesn’t have that much longer to go.