Shell-shocked Democrats are still trying to figure out what happened to President Obama last night as he got his clock cleaned by Mitt Romney. Most of the post-mortems seemed to center on his lack of aggressiveness on stage and his failure to raise the sort of personal attacks on Romney that have largely characterized the Democratic campaign. The expectation now is that the next time Obama and Romney face off, the president will be more engaged and perhaps ready to attack the challenger in a way that will please his followers. But the question Democrats should be asking themselves today is not just what was wrong with Obama that caused him to be so lackluster, but whether an attempt to savage Romney in person will be such a smart idea.
While the president did mention some of his familiar class warfare themes, pundits were almost unanimous in expressing their surprise that the phrase “47 percent” never passed through the president’s lips. Liberals were also appalled by his omission of any mention of Romney’s Bain Capital experience or tax returns. But if the only lesson the president learns from his defeat in Denver is that he must double down on personal attacks on his opponent, he may be setting himself up for another drubbing on October 16.
Democrats know that personal attacks on Romney have taken a huge toll on the Republican in recent months. They have had some success depicting him as a heartless plutocrat who cares nothing about ordinary people and who stashes money abroad while not paying taxes at home. Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe hurt him in large measure because it fit right into the portrait Democrats have been painting of him. But the assumption that the president would have done better had he echoed these nasty and quite personal barbs is faulty. Presidents are supposed to be presidential while leaving the business of carving up their opponents to lesser beings like vice presidents. If Obama’s cheering section in the media thinks getting down into the gutter on stage during a presidential debate is what Obama needs to do, they may soon be proved wrong.
The problem with the president last night wasn’t that he wasn’t nasty enough but the arrogance with which he seemed to regard the proceedings. His body language and long-winded lectures betrayed not just a man who didn’t adequately prepare for the format, but also a man who has no respect for his opponent or the ideas he put forward.
Yet the ultimate problem for the president is not so much what he did or didn’t say; it’s that he gave us a glimpse of the man that Republicans have always claimed him to be: the arrogant liberal poseur who looks down his nose at the rest of us. More than all the videos in which Obama uses racial incitement or talks down individual initiative, the real danger is that on the big stage of the first debate, he came across as less likeable. The stuffy, long-winded bore we saw in Denver is not the historic figure that inspired millions with his messianic promises of hope and change.
The shock isn’t so much that Obama lost this first debate but that he did so in a manner that leaves him open to the sort of second-guessing that often leads to different mistakes. Obama looked tired (perhaps Al Gore’s theory about him suffering from the altitude in Denver was correct) and disengaged. That is something he can fix in subsequent debates. He can also listen to advice about looking his opponent in the eye rather than constantly looking down and smirking. But there is a difference between being more focused and aggressive and resorting to personal slurs. If Obama takes the pleas for more savagery too much to heart he will wind up looking nasty and only make Romney look good by comparison.
More to the point, those dissecting Obama’s performance are also ignoring the fact that the president’s bigger problem is that his challenger has turned out to be more formidable than even many Republicans thought him to be. So long as Romney was viewed as merely a gaffe-prone tackling dummy, Obama could get away with not running on his record. But faced with a smart, confident opponent who is prepared to harp on his failings, it was the messiah of 2008 who looked like the empty suit.
The conundrum for Democrats is that the president has very little to say for himself or his record. Shorn of the demonization of the GOP, Obama is left with nothing. While such attacks work well on the campaign trail and in television ads, they are not likely to help in a face-to-face debate. Looking ahead to the next encounter, it won’t be hard for the president to better his Denver performance, but what last night might have exposed is not so much fatigue or overconfidence as it is the emptiness at the core of his re-election campaign.