Tonight was downright painful. Obama consistently struggled to regain his thought process. He fumbled between words, went off on tangents and failed miserably at communicating an inspirational narrative without a teleprompter. Meanwhile Romney, if disingenuous on many issues, coolly dissected and disarmed all of the President's arguments systematically, point for point.
In case Obama missed the memo, American Presidential debates aren't about substance, they are about style as Drew Westin so eloquently points out in his latest HuffPost piece.
The indicative moment came an hour and ten minutes in when Jim Lehrer (who himself got "verbally trampled" numerous times by Romney) threw Obama a softball asking what the differences are between the President and his challenger on the role of the federal government. In his response, Obama failed to mention the recently leaked video in which Romney claims that 47 percent of the country are essentially degenerate dependents on the Federal Government. He failed to explicitly associate Romney's lasses-faire economics with Bush's that resulted in the financial crisis of 2008 and the unemployment that ensued. And he failed to explain that the it was the Federal Government, through TARP and its stimulus program, that saved the U.S. from economic disaster just four years ago. Instead, our professor-President gave a lecture on the merits of collective action in the abstract, tripping up over a reference to Abraham Lincoln's Civil War policies and ending on a digression about teachers.
Romney's rebuttal couldn't have been more effective. He pointed to the Declaration of Independence behind him, and correlated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with his succinct objectives for the federal government. In the process, he provided an audience with a short attention span for policy, with some easy-to-digest, patriotic sound bites. In fact throughout the debate, Romney artfully worked in personal anecdotes that not only humanized him, but contained far more explanation value than Obama's abstract policy-talk.
In his October 1st NYT column, David Brooks wrote a mock-Romney speech in which he levels with the American public; "I'm a nonideological guy running in an ideological age, and I've been pretending to be more of an ideologue than I really am. I'm a sophisticated guy running in a populist moment. I've ended up dumbing myself down." This is just the authenticity people have been yearning for in Romney - to admit that while he's a savvy businessman, an effective manager and administrator, he's been a pathetic, pandering campaigner; that he actually might have the bipartisan experience in Massachusetts to bring together a hyperpolarized Congress in Washington, but that until now he's run a partisan, petty campaign. If Romney had pulled such a stunt, I might have even considered voting for him.
In reality, Romney was still disconnected, if sharp, tonight. As the debate wore on, he got mean and aggressive, condescendingly interrupting the President and Jim Lehrer, who apparently along with fellow PBS-resident Big Bird, will be getting the axe in a Romney administration.
But Obama disappointed most. If he wants to connect, we are going to need to see a side of him that he rarely shows -- definitely not the meek professorial side of him we saw tonight. Not even the inspired, "hopey-changey" side, that we get in his speeches towards which we are now jaded and weary. What we need is his competitive side. The side that, according to Michael Lewis' latest Vanity Fair piece, comes out in cabinet meetings and White House basketball games; his angry side; his frustrated side. These are the emotions the American people are feeling right now. They don't want a president who is above those feelings.
If Obama can't jump the absurdly-low hurdle that is being more human than Mitt Romney, then he is not worthy of a second term. Let's see if he can do better in round two.