How bad was the first presidential debate for President Obama? Even when he quipped about Wednesday night being his 20th wedding anniversary, Republican Mitt Romney got the better of him. “Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary,” Romney said. “I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here -- here with me.”
Throughout the 90-minute high-stakes encounter, Obama seemed to have abandoned a trait that has been at the core of his identity: the guy who always finishes his homework and tells America that his daughters do too. Even when Obama delivered canned lines from his campaign scripts, he flubbed his delivery and looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. In a debate that almost everyone was fact checking, Obama--who had as much at stake as anybody--seemed unwilling to challenge any of the numbers that Romney tossed out on stage.
Obama’s slovenly preparation and sub-par performance harmed his campaign by ceding huge advantages to the much better prepared and energized Romney -- and leaving many in his party dumbfounded and irate by his unwillingness to mount a strong defense:
He gave Romney a pass on Romney’s surreptitiously videotaped remarks that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes, are dependent on government and see themselves as victims, while allowing the former Massachusetts governor to go after his own economic track record and define himself as a champion of the middle class. “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,” Romney said. “They’re just being crushed.”
He allowed Romney to describe his 20 percent across the board tax cut plan – projected to benefit the wealthy by the Tax Policy Institute – as a boon to average Americans and economic growth that would do nothing to add to the deficit. Without any real pressure from the president or moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, Romney once again refused to specify which loopholes he would eliminate to help offset a projected $5 trillion of foregone tax revenue.
In his defense of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank overhaul of the banking and financial industry, he struggled to give a compelling explanation of why Americans are better off. That allowed Romney to essentially have it both ways – offering brutal critiques of both measures while reassuring voters he would somehow preserve their best provisions.
He gave Romney a free pass to repeatedly blast him for the $716 billion in Medicare cost savings from the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, the president failed to note that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has the same Medicare cuts in his latest budget plan.
He stood by as Romney repeatedly lectured him on the need for bipartisanship and Obama’s decision to chart his own course on health care and reforms of Wall Street without Republican support. Left unsaid was that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell declared early on that his top priority was making Obama a one-term president and that Republicans refused to negotiate seriously on health care reform and other Obama priorities.
Finally, he let Romney essentially call him a liar for mischaracterizing his tax plan without any mention of Romney’s notorious proclivity for flip-flopping in order to curry favor with the right wing of his party. “Look, I’ve got five boys,” Romney said. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it, but that – that is not the case, all right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.”
Just hours after arguably his worst debate performance ever, Obama sent out an e-mail message asking supporters for more campaign contributions and saying, “I hope I made you proud out there explaining the vision we share for this country.”
Far from it.
The near universal consensus is that Romney clobbered Obama in their first of three scheduled meetings this fall, and that the president’s lead in the national polls and in key battleground states suddenly could be in serious jeopardy. “I thought he was off his game,” liberal MSNBC host Ed Schultz said of Obama. “I was absolutely stunned tonight.”
Veteran Republican pollster John Zogby said that Romney “won big” and displayed a mastery of the economy, small business, health care and taxes. “President Obama got digs in on the former governor over the lack of detail of his proposals, but Romney clearly came out to play hard,” Zogby said.
At his core, Obama prides himself on his ability to learn, and he evolved as a debater during the 2008 Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton. His powerful oratory skills were honed, according to former campaign aides, by studying African-American preachers. As a president, Obama evolved and turned to the bully pulpit this year to shame Republicans into extending lower interest rates on student loans.
So what lessons should he take away from this test?
* You get to the White House the same way you get to play in Carnegie Hall—practice. Campaign trail speeches, interviews with reporters, and mock debates with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., were inadequate training. Obama adviser David Axelrod tried to joke on NBC’s “Today” show that “Governor Romney had put more preparation into it than they did at the invasion of Normandy.” If that’s the case, it worked—and maybe Obama should also adopt a D-Day mentality.
* Take your opponent seriously. One of the reasons Obama failed to respond to much of what Romney said is that he refused to genuinely engage him. “You may have deep contempt for Romney, but you should have great respect for his intelligence and debating skills,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “And most of all: A couple more performances as poor as Wednesday night’s, and your ex-Presidency is going to start four years earlier than you had planned.”
*Talk in short sentences. When Obama rambled, he lost his audience and buried his arguments. This 73-word line from Obama—similar to what he has said in ads and stump speeches—came out terribly garbled. “If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for — $7 trillion, just to give you a sense, over 10 years that's more than our entire defense budget — and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Governor Romney's plan may work for you.”
*Stick to a theme. Romney reduced his entire message to this simple argument and then branched into promises to protect the middle class and lower the deficit: “For me, this is about jobs.” By contrast, Obama began his rebuttals like an academic symposium: “Let's talk about taxes because I think it's instructive.” Then after a couple minutes of talking, he told a moderator eager to move on, “But I'm going to make an important point here, Jim.”
Obama has almost two weeks to prepare for the next town hall-style debate on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in New York. Vice president Joe Biden—who has fiercely defended the administration’s record on the campaign trail--will challenge Ryan in a debate next week, giving the president some time to regroup.