Watching the Obama-Romney debate last night reminded me of that terrible feeling on October 30th, 1974 while watching, eighth row ringside, the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight boxing championship in Kinshasa, Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
An avid Ali fan, I sat there with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I watched George Foreman's consistent aggressive punches to Ali, and Ali's seeming incapacity to throw many counterpunches.
Ali used the boxing ring ropes to protect himself. He let Foreman exhaust his energy from his persistent efforts to penetrate Ali's defense against Foreman's punches intended for Ali's body.
Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy worked. He knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round.
There are two more presidential debates. Unless President Obama carries the fight to Romney he faces substantial risk of not being re-elected. The risk arises not so much from who said what and who delivered the best debate "zinger." The risk arises from possible less-than-impressive television performances by the president during the next debates.
This will feed into and validate two underlying, often unspoken, themes I hear and read from many disparate sources:
1) Romney will be a more "competent" president because of his years of business management, skills and experience. (Romney did appear more competent and capable than president Obama during last night's first debate.)
2) A corollary of the above: President Obama is likable, a nice man with a nice family; he tried his best being president. Now, however, based on the economy and continued high unemployment, it's time we let someone "new," like Mitt Romney, with his business experience, take over the Oval Office. Mitt Romney can't be that much worse than President Obama. Give Mitt a chance.
In earlier blogs I wrote about President Obama's leadership challenge of addressing and "managing disappointed expectations" among significant segments of his 2008 voter base of supporters. As a result of last night's worse than expected debate performance, during the next two debates, President Obama needs to articulate ideas and policies that address these two underlying themes on the minds of a significant number of voters. This could determine the outcome of next month's election.
In contrast to Muhammad Ali, President Obama can't hope or expect that Romney will tire or self-destruct. If he does not take the fight aggressively to Romney during the next two debates he may lose the election.
Contrary to boxing, there will be no presidential championship "rematch."