The First Debate
We can’t ignore the first presidential debate, much as we might like. The bottom line: President Obama had his head handed to him.
The evening was made worse by the fact that Obama seemed not to care at all. Either he assumed he was unassailable, beyond reproach, too talented to worry, or he just didn’t want to be where he was.
We knew from his opening statement he was going nowhere. He gave his first two minute speech easily…except that it was his everyday first two minute speech that he gives everywhere.
The debate, as far as Democrats were concerned, was downhill all the way.
Putting aside for a moment the momentum of Romney’s attack, his smiling and engaging persona, the accuracy of what he said, President Obama stood like a child in a corner being scolded. His eyes were down; his entire face was turned towards the floor. He flashed his patented warm and friendly grin at moderator Jim Lehrer on cue a few too many times, relieved as he always was by Lehrer’s trying to keep the debate on track and thereby interrupting the torrent of words from Romney.
Obama failed to attack. He failed to defend. He decided not to investigate Romney’s startling arithmetic too closely.
Pity his most vocal enthusiasts on MSNBC, Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews, both of whom were near tears of frustration and disappointment. And were they angry! Both had put their good names on the line for this man and he comes out, somnolent, disengaged, distant and far, far too much of an “adult” to excite the casual listener, the voters in the middle, the undecideds.
Obama has allowed a contest to develop. He has allowed Romney a chance to escape from all his speaking errors and what are lovingly called “gaffs.” He ignored the plutocratic “I can’t do anything about the poor who won’t take care of their own lives” remark. In fact, had he been able to, the president would have ignored Romney altogether.
What seemed clear, painfully so, was Obama’s scorn for Romney, whom he appears neither to like nor to respect. He presented America with his shopping list of accomplishments, from Obamacare to bin Laden.
He gave Republicans every high hope in the world and seemed content to do so.
Perhaps the president has plans to mount a counter-offensive in debate two. By that time, however, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor et al will have crawled all over him like ravenous mosquitos, biting sharply whenever they can. He handed the House back to John Boehner. He did nothing to help the down ticket candidates who had hoped for a knockout punch from him so they could continue to campaign with confidence and direction. And it was his direction they were following. In effect, Obama betrayed his followers and left them hanging onto whispy memories of the Obama of 2008.
Which is what he has done since taking the oath of office. He has too often left his cohorts to hang and dry on the line while he goes happily off, his attention engaged somewhere new, assuming that having presented the House and Senate with what, to him, seems eminently reasonable, they too will find it so.
The next day, Obama pulls a Romney. Having failed to present himself as the warrior of old on Wednesday night, tied to hope and glory, on Thursday he revs himself up again in Denver and re-presents the Obama for whom people voted four years ago. If the public has had trouble identifying and getting a solid fix on Romney, how do they now do the same on Obama? Which Obama is the real one? The berated little boy at the debate or a man with a vision to which millions earlier subscribed?
The Republicans, naturally, are thrilled, and once again on fire, imagining this is the beginning of the end for Obama and the end of the beginning for the Republican right wing. Despite Romney’s throwing his right wing to the wolves and “doing it his way,” which all along he should have been doing, the Republicans are going to now begin to follow this man rather than proudly announce they will lead him wherever the Tea Party wants.
The Democrats, still in shock, are falling back on cheer-leading. They believe in their cause fervently even if they no longer believe quite so fervently in the testosterone of the president. In effect, the Democrats now have to do Obama’s job, pointing out inaccuracies and fibs (read lies) of Romney on the Denver stage.
What this all means is that once again the debate about the role of government in our lives, not to mention the direction of that government in disciplining the country (the Republicans) or assisting Americans in need (the Democrats) will not take place. Instead, we’ll be treated to five more weeks of charge/counter charge, from which no moderately intelligent voter can emerge with any sense of certainty.
Obama will perhaps remain content with his first term accomplishments and his low-key leadership and by being so, will offer the country nothing new, nothing revolutionary, nothing but another four years of distant involvement in Big Questions. Too often, as we’ve noted, he’s been missing in action, which means, in effect, that his allies in Congress have done what he wanted and not been thanked or supported by him for any of their efforts. What Congress wants to do seems, to Obama, so much less worthy than his own Olympian dreams.
And it’s perfectly possible, based on Wednesday night’s performance, that Obama really doesn’t care about any of this. He’s President, he was elected, he’s history. If the Republicans want to continue to be obstructionists, should he win a second term, does he care enough about the rest of his legacy — the part that doesn’t simply rely on being the first black president of the nation — to try to work with them, to come at solving problems in a different, a more bi-partisan manner, for which there is no guarantee of success?
Given the circumstances of his ascendancy, Obama has not been a bad president. And he has accomplishments to point to, despite racism which confronts him every day he’s on the job. Throughout the attacks and slights, he has remained a cool gentleman, a thoughtful if low-key leader, an adult.
But America wants red blood cells. It cares less for sophistication and self-control than for decisions that, rightly or wrongly, are quick, dramatic, and have immediate effect on our lives.
Romney is promising those same decisions. Whether they are good for the country in the long term matters less to voters than that he’s off the dime and moving. Even if what he says is discovered to be bilge water, it sounds good right this very minute.
We are not a patient people.