Like many viewers, I was befuddled by the president’s first debate performance. How was it possible that he could be so passive and unwilling to challenge Romney on blatant untruths about pre-existing conditions, the difference between their tax plans, as well as the Republican candidate’s sordid overtures at giving Big Bird the heave-ho?
“I’m actually quite partial to Oscar the Grouch,” I imagined Obama responding, before proceeding to launch a full-throated defense of Big Bird right then and there. Even though the whole thing is absolutely harebrained, he still wins the argument, because really, who wants to kill off Big Bird?
But the president waited until the next day to make the Big Bird argument. By then, it was too late and came off as scripted, as if the campaign needed to focus group the line before going with it.
So after the debate I was befuddled. I began thinking that this could be some elaborate hustle by Obama. He attempts to play it straight, staying mostly positive, and though he appears weak overall, it sets up Romney perfectly for the next debate, where he finally finishes him. The later debates would matter more anyway, I told myself.
It was, of course, wishful thinking that Obama was using some Jedi mind trick, but his performance was that inexplicable. I had watched Jon Stewart wonder the same thing about Obama’s Jedi credentials in the past. His blindside seems so obvious sometimes that it leads you to believe it must be some elaborate head fake, when in reality it’s just sheer, unadulterated human error.
Scanning the news after the debate in the next couple days I was pleasantly surprised to find a Star Wars-related story in the Huffington Post. Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, tweeted: “I’ve never seen a candidate for President lie more than Romney. He lies effortlessly, shamelessly. This snake oil salesman must be defeated!!!”
The apt phrase 'snake oil' had been used in a stump speech this past August by Obama to personify the Romney-Ryan ticket, but this kind of caustic language wasn’t used at all during the debate.
The complaint by most on the left was that Obama should have called out Romney’s serial lying during the debate. He at least should have used the 47% percent attack line. And he should have.
The president was probably surprised that Romney had cast so far to the middle and was not representing anything near the policies he had advocated for in the past year; he wasn’t prepared to attack Romney and call him a liar. He wanted to take the high road, and make his case directly to the undecided voters. This was at least the strategy that David Axelrod described after the debate in the spin room.
If this was a deliberate strategy for Obama to maintain, as Senator O’ Malley of Maryland called it, “a dignified reserve,” and to stay above the fray in some grand gesture of bi-partisan-ism, then it was obviously a bad one. Whoever came up with the idea, whether it was the communications team, or the president, how could they be so naïve? But Obama supporters were also being naïve, for this was after all the man who persistently, almost dogmatically, labored for Republican cooperation for years even after they’ve made it quite clear their only goal is to make him a one term president.
Obama obviously wants to be liked, and this is a lot of what he has going for him -- now to a fault. As Paul Krugman noted this Sunday, Obama tends to be stubbornly conciliatory until he is backed into a corner, as shown by the 2008 McCain debates. Krugman also appropriately went after the media’s ineptitude in fact checking and establishing some kind of objective truth throughout the campaign.
In the end though, Obama bears the full extent of the blame and not the media. If Bill Clinton is the “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” Obama needs to be the “Fact-Checker in Chief,” while staying away from being the “Over-Explainer in Chief.”
As for Romney, it seems he has adopted a strategy to tack to the center, regardless of his previous record (the past year), and to turn the race into an all-out, no-holds-barred truthiness battle where both candidates quibble like children (“You’re a liar. You started it!”), something that nobody wants to see. The problem with this strategy is that even though it may serve to debilitate an already demoralized electorate, maybe even siphoning off some Obama votes (rather than adding to Romney votes necessarily), it won’t really make that much of a difference as long as Obama manages to have two decent debate performances over the coming month.
So does all of this even matter? Is the debate actually going to change minds?
If you look at recent polls, it appears that Romney got a decent bounce from the debates, but undecided voters weren’t really affected that much, or inspired more to vote for one candidate or the other. Yet much of the media continues to treat the debate like it was a death knell for Obama to finally lose a news cycle — a small window which was eventually closed when the unemployment rate shot down to 7.8%.
Indeed, Obama did poorly. He should know that he can’t afford to give the Republicans an inch of daylight, especially a month out from the elections. There are however, still two presidential debates remaining, which will be more remembered by voters when it comes time to vote.
To take a page from Mark Hamill, Obama should use the phrase 'snake oil', a phrase he has used before, during the next presidential debate to characterize Romney’s penchant for flip-flopping. It would hit hard, resonate with voters, and be a contender for attack headline of the night.