Election 2012

Ilse Burke watches the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during a watch party put on by the South Orange County Tea Party in Dana Point, Calif. Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Last night’s presidential debate was historic in its significance. There’s no two ways about it, folks, it was a game changer.

It was like “there you go again” all night long.

As I write this, Barack Obama’s spinmeisters are trying to do what the president couldn’t – clearly articulate his plan for the economy and defend his performance in office the last four years.

You know it’s bad when Obama surrogates start attacking a true giant like Jim Lehrer. In fact, Lehrer actually tried to help Obama, providing leading phrases to get an answer rolling, such as, “but Mr. President, you’re saying that in order to get the job (reducing the deficit) done, it has to be balanced (between tax increases and spending reductions)…”

Last night encapsulates the reason why following each ebb and flow of pre-debate polls serves only one purpose – to give pundits something to talk about.

In stark contrast, Mitt Romney was focused and passionate all evening. He came across as someone who actually believed what he was saying. It was easy for him to explain his proposals and his overarching philosophy. Where the heck has that been all these months?

Romney had policy specifics and data points on the tip of his tongue. His preparation and strong intellect – surely no surprise to those who have worked with him over the last 30 years – made him appear presidential. In a time of uncertainty and malaise, that scores a lot of points.

The president, in contrast, leaned too heavily on poorly memorized talking points that provided him with little depth to both his answers and to his criticisms of Romney’s plans. At times, Obama seemed to seize chunks of talking points that were simply no longer viable because of the flow of the conversation.

There are a few reasonable theories for why this was happening.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands during the first presidential debate, Weds., Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

First, Obama looked out of practice. Yes, even though he’s been on the campaign trail for a year. How could this be? The answer, in part, may lie in the fact that he doesn’t hold regular news conferences. And when he does, his team tightly controls the Q & A. The media has gone easy on Obama during his first term, and actually appears docile at times. As a result, the president isn’t used to defending his plans and articulating things clearly in a competitive, confrontational setting.

Also, there are no teleprompters in a debate format. If you have a script or critical data points, you have to internalize them. Obama didn’t. Thus, he stumbled and was less-than-persuasive at critical moments.

On the other side of the coin, it was the first time in months that the electorate was able to listen to Romney talk in depth without the haze of constant derogatory media chatter.

Viewers have to give the moderator – yes, Jim Lehrer – big credit for not getting side-tracked with nonsense like Romney’s tax rate or Obama’s 4-year-old speeches referencing Jeremiah Wright. The Obama team couldn’t use distractions to keep the electorate jumping like a cat chasing a flashlight’s glow across a floor. This was unfiltered. Here were the two candidates, face-to-face – one showed up, and one faltered badly.

I suspect last night’s debate will produce two important outcomes.

First, Obama will be far better prepared and combative the next time around. His David Axelrod-led team will do all it can over the next week to portray Romney as a liar – and also to get Obama’s mojo back. They have a lot of specifics to work with and will try to discredit the foundations of Romney’s arguments. This bitterly-toned groundswell is emerging already over social media like Twitter.

Second, however, those outside Obama’s base will now actually be willing to look beyond the personal attacks and listen to what Romney says on a more substantive level. In effect, these 90 minutes heavily mitigated the tens of millions of dollars the Obama camp has spent in recent weeks on Romney attack ads.

These voters may not necessarily agree with where Romney comes out on the issues, but they will now pay attention. Chances are, for many of them, if they’re undecided they have serious doubts about the nation’s leadership over the last four years and may be susceptible to trying something new.

Last night encapsulates the reason why following each ebb and flow of pre-debate polls serves only one purpose – to give pundits something to talk about.

The game is now on for real. A competitive, substantive election is what the American public deserves – and it finally looks like we’re going to get it. May the best man win.


Video: Presidential Debate

Tags: Barack Obama, Election 2012, Mitt Romney

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • So about that….

    I watched the debate last night, and Romney was talking about his “plan.” I understand that his plan involves getting 12 million new jobs! Wow that’s fantastic! Then I realized what everyone should always realize when choosing between 2 presidential candidates. What exactly is this plan? Basically all I heard Romney say was, “I have plan to turn this country around. My plan is a great plan. This plan of mine is going to help the middle class out.” That’s nice, how do you plan on going about that Mr. Romney? “Well, I will reduce the deficit and get us more jobs.” That’s nice, but what specifically do you plan to do? “Work with others to get this done.” etc… etc… He never actually said what he would do. He just said he would do “good things” with a confident smile. That tells me nothing. I would rather keep Obama in then let someone who can make up a nice story about this plan that he fantasizes about in.

  • Trochilus

    You can always learn a lot by listening to team reactions from the big loser, and Team Obama did not disappoint!

    My favorites were as follows:

    1) Stephanie Cutter had a very brief epiphany and momentarily even told the truth — for the first time during this entire campaign — before quickly reverting to a risible claim that it was all Jim Lehrer’s fault for ceding control of the debate to Mitt. She’s really been comedy gold this year!

    2) Chris Matthews apparently suffered a “furrowing feeling” running up his head this a time and he cried out loud to Rachel Maddow by — get this — complaining that Obama does not watch cable television, because they have all the answers over at MSNBC!

    3) But the prize for most ridiculous loser comment went to Al Gore for suggesting that the President was apparently suffering from a case of Rocky Mountain High!

    Gee . . . I always thought the theory was that more home runs are hit in Denver because of the altitude, not that “Mighty” Casey whiffed because of it!

  • Trochilus

    Here is the link to Chris Matthew’s hissy fit over Obama not watching more cable TV.

  • Beth

    What a wonderful debate recap by John Sivoella!

  • massappeal

    A good, thoughtful column…but one question:

    If Obama’s campaign team “will do all it can over the next week to portray Romney as a liar…” and “(t)hey have a lot of specifics to work with” because of all Romney’s, well, lies last night, then what is the “more substantive level” of Romney’s proposals that “those outside Obama’s base” will be listening to?

    Won’t they just discover that Romney was lying about his real plans and that his numbers don’t add up?

    (Sorry, I guess that’s two questions.)

    • Trochilus

      First, they’ll have to conclude that Mitt was lying. You seem to be convinced, but the facts suggest otherwise. Perhaps those who, like you, are convinced without any necessity for evidence may be vulnerable to Obama’s continuing string of misinformation.

      However, there are those who will actually listen to both sides and decide independently. With those people, Obama is in very big trouble. I’ll put my faith in the American people to make a wise decision.

      Secondly, the next national debate will be between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Gee, good luck with that one, given Joe’s admission that the middle class has been crushed over the past four years! I can’t wait to hear HIS explanation for that one!

      Finally, the next Presidential debate between Obama and Romney will include a discussion of foreign affairs, unlike this one.

      Given the utter collapse of the Obama foreign policy in the wake of the tragic terrorists attack in Benghazi, and the serious questions regarding the failure of any investigation being conducted at the scene for weeks — plus a few weeks of classic denial (and outright lying) from several members of his Administration — Barack Obama will be on the defensive.

      • massappeal

        Thanks for the response. When you say “the facts suggest otherwise”, what facts do you have in mind? (E.g., on Romney’s claim that half of the clean energy companies funded by the Recovery Act failed, Romney’s claim that his tax plan does not include a $5 trillion tax cut, his claim that his Medicare plan will not affect current recipients, etc.)

  • JagRay

    Ultimately, the GOP will get another president, and everything Obama has done (save one or two bilateral decisions) will be overturned.

    Also, one must again come to terms with the fact that our votes and opinions are irrelevant – the electoral college makes the decisions, not the constituencies.

  • Pingback: A Sampling of Debate Reaction | MassPoliticsProfs()

  • Steve

    Great recap and analysis. I agree with you that we’ll see Obama adopt an overly-aggressive approach in the next round, even if it is a town hall style. It’s interesting that John Kerry coached and advised him, but I’m sure that Axelrod (channeling the Alinsky spirit) will be the main adviser this time. Regardless, they’ll fail again because Mitt will show his steady style and triumph on the facts and logic.

    • massappeal

      Interesting comment. I’m curious—what facts and logic did you have in mind that Romney would use as the basis of his triumph?

  • Lilee

    The president did look terrible. I wondered if something big was going on internationally. He seemed exhausted and distracted. But it also may explain why he’s been ineffectual as president. Maybe the man isn’t good on his feet. But Romney is anything but presidential. They referred to him as ”governor.” Really? Because non of us in Massachusetts remember him being here. He was too busy doing what he does, run for president. The purchased title as governor of Massachusetts was a resume stop on the way to the white house. He had no interest in being governor. He has no interest in legislation. The man has ambition for it’s own sake. A willing puppet in exchange for the big title. He’s better at campaigning/debates because he’s a professional candidate. But presidential? He’s mealy-mouthed. A little spoiled boy. It’s a depressing election for the working class. And with ”Citizen United” we are cooked group. As the communist accused of us; we will sell you the rope you will hang us by. Let’s face it. Our democracy’s rope was sold and 99% of us are swinging from the rafters. And there we will remain, taxed and poor while Romney’s boys get richer or as Obama twists his hands while excusing his impotence.

  • ANNA

    Romney lies with such alacrity that yes, he does seem credible. The giveaway is his twitchy, jumpy demeanor. And since when is lying not a sin in the Mormon, or any other religion? Anyone who is fooled by his sales pitch deserves what they’ll get if he’s actually elected: A back to the future 19th century.