President Obama had a tough assignment for Tuesday night’s presidential debate. He had to repair the self-inflicted damage he did with his pathetic performance in the first debate, energize the Democratic base with aggressive attacks on Mitt Romney and a sharp defense of his record, but not alienate the sliver of undecided voters in swing states who will decide the presidency. And he had to do this in a town hall format, where direct attack on your opponent is a little more challenging.
By contrast, all Mr. Romney had to do was avoid gaffes and keep up his reasoned critique of the Obama presidency.
While Mr. Obama did far better this time, the second presidential debate showed that Democrats still have reason to be worried, about this election and about their candidate. Democrats have to face facts – Obama seems to be temperamentally unsuited to modern political debate. He doesn’t exploit sudden opportunities and has trouble linking a line of questioning to a known Romney vulnerability.
Is this because he is the “no drama Obama” to his core, an inherently cautious man who looks for compromise and common ground by nature? Or is he just someone who doesn’t have much knack for biting repartee? Or is his penchant for measured civility what keeps his “likability” numbers consistently higher than Romney’s in the polls? We may never know; all we can say is the president let several opportunities go by, in both debates.
That’s not to say that Obama lacks talent as a politician. He’s a masterful speaker, a capable tactician, possesses a remarkable mind and memory, and clearly is a calm and cool leader. But debates uniquely show his weakness.
When the topic of taxes comes up, and you’re standing next to Mitt Romney, you bring up his tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, his Swiss bank accounts, and you link that to his refusal to release his tax records.
Obama should have pushed Romney on why he asked Paul Ryan to show more tax returns than he himself will disclose to the voters. “What are you hiding, Governor, and will you promise tonight to release at least a few more years, so America knows if your money has been where your mouth has been tonight?”
This hones in on the essential differences that separate Romney from much of the “middle income folks” he says he wants to help.
Sure, Obama, did note “the fact that [Romney] only has to pay 14 percent on his taxes when a lot of you are paying much higher.” But when Romney talked about helping the middle class by keeping capital gain taxes low, why didn’t Obama laugh gently and point out that for most middle class Americans, capital gains are a trivial part of their taxes.
Those weren’t fish in a barrel. Those were whales in a Dixie cup.
Obama had moments of good offense, and some of them scored him points. By far the best was his impassioned defense of his administration’s response to the deaths in Benghazi, and his effective portrayal of Romney’s response as shallow political hackery. And Obama did, finally, bring up Romney’s ugly comments implying that 47 percent of Americans were lazy moochers. It was an obvious rebuttal to the low-hanging fruit Romney left him with his “I want 100 percent of America to have a bright and prosperous future” comment.
Democrats quickly declared after the debate that Obama won. But if he did, it was by a run or two in a low scoring baseball game, not the blowout that he needed and that was well within reach if Obama were playing harder ball.
Look at what is happening all over the Internet with people mocking Romney’s bizarre reference to “binders full of women.” The line has come symbolize his out-of-touch statements last night about women in the workforce, far overshadowing his actual record in Massachusetts. A talented politician could have made that stuff stick on live television.
Democrats are paying for picking a relatively obscure first term Illinois senator as their leader in 2008. Not only was his resume among the shortest of any American president, his opposition on the road to that Senate seat was remarkably weak. His measured style worked against Hillary Clinton in the primary debates, and against John McCain in the general election, but Obama had no record to defend and no real need to attack.
Consequently, Democrats are just finding out that Obama is about as effective a debater as the average Senate candidate. There’s no Reagan-esque humor with a wicked point, or Clinton’s ability to launch a data-driven attack that backs his opponent into a corner with a smile and folksy Southernism.
On the other side of the stage, Romney had a blandly good night. He didn’t look as good as he did in the first debate, in part because Obama looked so much better. He was more repetitious, and that was grating. But Obama never really got under his skin, never managed to get Romney with a crisp put down.
The accepted wisdom about debates before the first Romney-Obama event was that they seldom affect the outcome. The shift in polls across the country following Romney’s first round victory show that may no longer be true, if it ever was.
Two debates down, one to go, and the president has probably stopped the decline in his poll numbers. But Romney supporters can rest assured that their guy is still very much in striking distance. It’s never easy to defeat an incumbent president, even in a time of economic struggle. But Mitt Romney may well do it, in part because the Democratic standard bearer is only an average debater.
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.