There’s one thing almost everybody can agree on: last night’s debate was a bloodbath, with Obama on the losing end of it. But re-watching some of the clips this morning, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what was so unusually great about Romney’s performance and what was so unusually awful about Obama’s.
The successes and failures are more easily spotted in the contrasts. Romney was more engaged, more enthusiastic, more lucid, more relaxed, and more cheerful than Obama. He looked like he actually enjoyed being there. Obama, in comparison, came off as more detached, rustier on the facts, and slower on his feet.
But what about when you isolate their performances? Was there really a major difference between their individual debates and how they’ve acted on the campaign trail, during press events, and during interviews for the last several months?
For the most part, I’d say there wasn’t. Sure, Obama’s less articulate when he’s off his teleprompter, but it’s not as if we haven’t seen him speaking off-the-cuff before at press conferences and interviews. And Romney definitely seemed to have some extra fire in him last night, but nothing that would have garnered much notice had he been stumping on the campaign trail instead.
The biggest difference was that we were seeing both of them in the same place, discussing the same issues, with no media meddling or filtration (save for the timid interruptions of a very outgunned Jim Lehrer). We were not seeing 30-second soundbites hand-picked for us by Obama’s journalism cheering squad, or teleprompter-assisted speeches, or dueling press conferences where Romney is grilled but Obama is treated with kid gloves. Up until now, the mainstream press has allowed this president to sit in a bubble, largely unchallenged. Their narrative is that he’s likable, he’s smooth, he’s amazingly cerebral. As for Romney, he’s been branded as stilted, out-of-touch, and phony. Amazing how that conventional wisdom collapses when you peel away the selective lenses and the outside chatter, leaving two men alone on a stage, armed with just their own words.