Although President Obama has faced no shortage of criticism about his debate performance, the criticism hasn't gone far enough. The president's showing called into question not just his approach to this one event, but his ability to extend that rare occurrence: the liberal moment.
The polls reflect the strategic errors made by Obama and his team, apparently generated by being in the lead. His primary goal was to maintain his margin of "likability." After all, millions of Americans vote on character, not substance.
But this doesn't render substance meaningless: Obama was so defensive that he couldn't advocate his own economic program effectively. Substance may not win each vote, but it has an impact well beyond the debate... even beyond the election.
Obama's staff has also insisted that "storytelling" is more important that "analysis" when communicating to the American people. But this can lead Obama to talk about the economy with a clear lack of authority. You might not understand everything your doctor tells you about your treatment, but you want him to sound like he knows what he's talking about. Obama doesn't.
Many have made the case that Obama's job record -- in contrast to his predecessor -- and his role as savior of the auto industry -- in contrast to his opponent -- gave Obama plenty of ammunition. But this just scratches the surface:
1. Deficits: Why do we have trillion-dollar deficits? Because if we reduce government spending at a time of rising unemployment, we'll have more unemployment -- perhaps to the point of depression. Liberals don't believe in deficits regardless of the state of the economy. Liberals believe that deficits are appropriate when the economy is underperforming and a balanced budget or surplus is apt when the economy is booming.
2. Health Care: Romney argued that Romneycare might be good for Massachusetts, but each state should decide for itself. Our federal system has advantages -- states can be laboratories for new ideas as Romney asserted. But it also has its downside. It creates a "lowest common denominator" system that can undermine effective public policy. That's what "right to work" laws do. If health reform is delegated to the states, progressive states would be pressured to be less innovative or attract more and more of the sick and needy. (Also, if the marketplace determines health care, lower-income earners always will need to calculate whether to trade medical expenses against other necessities -- and often conclude wrongly.)
3. Energy: Just as with health care, the fact that the marketplace is essential but not perfect affects energy policy. This is obvious when it comes to the environment, where the marketplace does not require polluters to clean up after themselves. So, the cost of clean-up, i.e. global warming, coal caused illness, etc., is not reflected in prices. Shouldn't we want to see how competitive solar and wind would be if all costs are considered? Isn't that what a well-functioning marketplace would do?
4. Entitlements: Medicare and Social Security taxes are hardships for the young? Where would the young be if their parents didn't have Medicare and Social Security? Millions of lower-income Americans (and millions in the middle class as well) would be taking care of their parents -- either financially, directly, or both -- costing them even more. Entitlements properly structured relieve families of financial hardship rather than causing it. But conservatives highlight the costs while ignoring the benefits.
5. Taxes: Romney now says that he wants to lower tax rates -- but not the amount that the wealthy pay in taxes? He would move marginal tax rates in line with effective tax rates. We can debate what the top rate would then be -- but that's not the 20 percent tax cut that Romney has been pushing, is it? No, it's a 0 percent tax cut. (And Obama can't defend progressive taxation when the rich now receive over 90 percent of income gains? Shouldn't most of federal income taxes be paid by those who have most of the discretionary income -- income after necessities?)
6. Bi-partisanship: Romney might claim Obama isn't "bipartisan" but you can't be bipartisan by yourself. There wasn't one Congressional Republican who would support the individual mandate that was at the center of Romney's Massachusetts health care reforms. So forget that the Republicans didn't support Obamacare. They wouldn't have supported Romneycare either. (Even if Obama had actually debated Romney, it still wouldn't have been sufficient as he also needs to try to force Congressional Republicans to feel the pressure to work with him.)
The country needs a second Obama term for many reasons. But Obama's debate performance certainly calls into question just how successful that second term will be.
If he can't defend his own Keynesian economic policies, will he make the right judgment as to when to lower the deficit? If he can't communicate why a universal health insurance market is better for the American people, can he persuade the country to accept whatever revisions in the system will be required, rather than scrapping the whole thing. And on and on.
OK, it isn't easy to discuss economics in a way that is both compelling and easily understood. And liberals have a much more difficult framing job than conservatives. It's much easier to frame the "government vs. the individual" than the "government vs. the marketplace." But it is necessary. Especially for a liberal president.
One can argue how often liberal moments occur and how long they last. 1932 was one -- and it lasted 6 years -- or 20, depending on one's criteria. 1960 was another -- and again lasted 6 years -- or, arguably, longer.
2008 was another. Will it only last two years? Some might say this liberal moment is already over -- but elections mean something. Obama had better figure out how to get off the defensive soon or his reelection, while preventing liberals' worst fears, won't extend the liberal moment even one second longer.