Everyone agrees: Obama lost the debate. While Romney was aggressive and organized, Obama was languid and halting. Romney outlined decisive five point plans; Obama stumbled over his own record and the economic catastrophe he inherited. This is the easy, obvious narrative, but it's polarized conclusion obscures the primary objective of each candidate in the debate. The two weren't just talking past each other through their slew of statistics and mismatched claims. Romney came to fight not so much Obama, but his own out of touch, elitist image. By contrast, Obama came not to fight at all; instead he aimed to offer the American public not a victor, but a choice.
Though Romney came out swinging, his real opponent was the "47 percent" Romney who casually dismissed nearly half of the population because they don't pay federal income taxes and refuse to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Within seconds of his first allotted two minutes, Romney spoke of a woman in Dayton, Ohio who grabbed his arm and said "I've been out of work since May. Can you help me?" He then stated that his wife Ann had met a woman yesterday in Denver who having just lost her home asked, "Can you help us?" Throughout the ninety plus minute debate, Romney repeatedly invoked the plight of ordinary people he has met throughout the country. He referred to these desperate individuals so often that it became a tiresome, predictable rhetorical tic. Romney continued to call upon them as a way to vanquish the image of the oblivious, spectacularly wealthy candidate who is more interested in wooing big donors than in listening to the average American voter. If Romney indeed "won" the debate, it's because the "47 percent" Romney is now gone, replaced with a newer version who cares about the struggles of the middle class and promises magical tax solutions for the country.
Unlike Romney, Obama did not have an alter-ego that needed to be destroyed. If last night's debate proves anything about Obama it's that he is always the same person: professorial, compromising and irritated by the niceties that politics demand. As the New Yorker recently reported, Obama does not aggressively woo big donors nor does he easily cede to social and political courtesies. Obama was authentically tired and annoyed by Romney's excessive preparation. This does not excuse Obama's lackluster performance, but it does help clarify that the President did not come to match Romney with prepared zingers and memorized data sheets. Instead Obama aimed to lay out his differences from Romney. While the former governor invoked ordinary Americans, Obama continually offered to voters a description of the consequences of a Romney presidency:
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.
This, like much of what Obama said at the debate, is not a direct attack; it's a delineation of choice. He similarly stated:
And so the question is does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.
As Nate Silver and Rachel Maddow have demonstrated, historically incumbent presidents do not fair well in debates. They are placed in a necessarily defensive position that weakens their ability to highlight their opponent's weaknesses. Obama was especially vulnerable because he did not go for easy attacks on Romney: the "47 percent" video, his history at Bain, his undisclosed tax returns. But I commend Obama for not giving in to predictable accusations that are primarily about Romney as a person and not directly about his plans for the country. Debating the "47 percent" video is not going to clarify each candidate's tax plan or approach to education.
We are accustomed to viewing debates as a battle with a single victor. Obama's underwhelming debate performance demonstrates that there are more important issues at stake than crowning the sharpest, shiniest candidate as king. Where Obama sought to educate the American public about the differences between a Romney and Obama administration, Romney attacked everyone but the ordinary American he now holds so dear. Obama certainly needs to enliven his subdued performance for the next two debates, but our president reminds us that the election is not a war; it is a choice.