Democrats will be tuning into the presidential debate tonight in hopes of seeing a more aggressive performance from President Obama. For two weeks, we’ve heard little but endless analysis about what the president needs to do to improve on his performance from his first debate with Mitt Romney with most of it centering on his passivity in Denver. There was plenty to critique in what Obama did that night but the idea that his big problem was that he needed to muss up Romney’s hair says more about the disdain Democrats have for their opponents than it does about the president’s problem.
The expectation is that Obama will show up at Hofstra ready to mix it up with Romney but hoping to stop just short of Joe Biden’s bullying act at the vice presidential debate. It is doubtful that the evening will not contain mentions of Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe or attempts to question Romney’s credibility. But if that’s his main focus, he will be making a mistake. Contrary to what Democrats say, Obama’s main shortcoming in the debate was not his lack of aggression so much as it was his lack of interest as well as his disdain for the proceedings. What Americans sensed when they saw that debate was a man who thought having to explain his positions and record was beneath his dignity. Zingers at Romney’s expense tonight may help but they will avail Obama little if he cannot muster more respect for the voters.
The first debate exposed qualities that Obama’s critics have long complained about.
The president was not so much passive as he was arrogant and contemptuous of the views of others. As much as Democrats longed for him to come out swinging at Romney, what the public saw that night was the same lack of respect for opposing views that made compromise on the stimulus, ObamaCare, the debt and anything else that he tried to negotiate with Congress over the last four years impossible.
More aggression from Obama will please the Democratic base and that is essential to his hopes for victory. But, as many astute analysts have pointed out, the decline in his standings in the polls in the last two weeks is not a matter of a defecting liberal base as it is Romney’s holding on to his base while picking up independents and wavering centrist Democrats. A president who bashes his opponent and calls him a liar is exactly what many Democrats want. But it may not be what undecided voters in swing states desire.
It is not just that a fire-breathing Obama will turn off undecided voters but that what the president needs most is to demonstrate the sort of post-partisan hope and change persona that helped him win the hearts of Americans four years ago. That may have been merely a pose but it was far more effective tactic than any attempt to beat up Romney on stage.
An outright win at any presidential debate is always a long shot since it requires a gaffe or a candidate acting as if he didn’t care (as Obama did two weeks ago). The most the president can accomplish tonight is to remind voters that he is the same man they elected four years ago. If his staff and debate coaches have focused the president on getting tough with Romney rather than playing to his strengths, they will have sent him on a fool’s errand.