My husband and I watched the debate from an airport, where we watched the video with closed-captions, and listened to the audio feed on our laptops, on a slight delay. With the volume off, for the first few minutes Obama looked to be winning--he is the master of the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look which reads well on television, while Mitt Romney's perma-smile seemed supercilious.
Obama's trouble became clear in the audio first. He stammered. He paused, searching for a thought. He passed up one opportunity after another to attack Romney--and seemed flustered when the attacks he did launch were effortlessly parried. After a while, it began to show in his face. He was constantly looking down, obviously to write notes, but also, I think, because he knew that when he did look up, his face too often looked rather miffed. It's been reported that the president viscerally dislikes Mitt Romney, and you could see him struggling to keep it off his face. "The president," I thought, "clearly prefers attacking rich people from afar." He relishes abstract combat over soaring ideals, but I suspects he hates the unpleasant business of confronting specific individuals. Or perhaps I am projecting, since this is a trait I share.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was in excellent form. He is not, I think, a very good candidate, but he is an excellent debater, in the bland American style. His consulting and private equity experience really showed. He had an answer ready for everything Lehrer and Obama threw at him, and his answers were punchy and memorable. He demonstrated mastery of fairly arcane policy details--when the president threw out his evergreen line about killing "corporate welfare" for oil companies making a killing off of high prices, Romney (correctly) retorted that these expensing rules were changed for the major oil companies years ago; they benefit small independent drillers and operators who account for only a small portion of the oil supply. From the look on Obama's face, it wasn't clear to me that the president had understood this.
After the debate was over, we had a rather astonished discussion on the plane. I had known that Romney was a fair debater, but I hadn't expected anything like this lopsided. The most favorable assessments of Obama's performance all came from liberals, and ranged from "The debates don't really matter" to "I didn't think he lost all that badly."
Some of the explanations we came up with:
1. Obama is a great speechmaker, but not a good debater. He has campaigned in the general against two very weak candidates who did themselves in largely without his help. And he had a much tougher fight against Hillary Clinton.
2. Mitt Romney got a lot of practice in the GOP debates. Obama did his last debate four years ago.
3. Mitt Romney has one job: running for president. Obama has to run for president, and also actually to be president. So he naturally couldn't do as much debate prep. (Though to be fair, the president has had a full time staff providing him with talking points for four years, while Romney only switched his focus to Obama, rather than other Republicans, a few months ago)
4. The president lives in a bubble, and this president, in particular, has attracted a sort of worship that hasn't followed any president since Kennedy, or maybe Reagan. (There's a cult of Reagan now, but I don't know whether that was true in 1984). You see it in things like the invitations to set up a wedding registry for donations to the Obama campaign, to send a Mother's Day e-card celebrating the administration's policy achievements, and of course, that infamous paragraph in the 2008 speech he gave after he locked up the Democratic nomination:
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.
The fact that someone on his team wrote that line, and that no one else stopped him from delivering it, is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that four years later, many of his supporters do not grasp why so many people outside the Obama bubble--I'm tempted to say everyone who is not a die-hard supporter--find it hilariously narcissistic.
That is going to make it hard for the president to get good debate prep. With the time pressure he's under, he needs to make every second of his debate prep count--which is to say, he needs an opponent who will absolutely pummel him. It seemed clear last night that they've been pitching him softballs, which is why he struck out on even completely obvious, predictible questions.
5. Romney can debate on promises; Obama has to debate on his record. He can't claim that his health care bill will be the most awesome thing since sliced bread with absolutely no downside for anyone; we already knowwhat it looks like. Many of the empty promises that Obama would no doubt like to make have already been scored by the CBO when he proposed them in past budgets; Romney, on the other hand, can simply deflect one study with another, and a promise not to do anything that increases the deficit. I saw a lot of outraged complaints about this in my twitter feed, but it's not like Obama outlined the details of Obamacare two years in advance. The incumbent gets the benefit of name recognition and ribbon-cutting opportunities; the challenger gets the benefit of vagueness. Thus it has always been.
6. Obama is a very, very smart guy with a penchant for policy detail. Mitt Romney is also a very, very smart guy with a penchant for policy detail. I got the impression that Obama somehow hadn't been expecting someone who could go full frontal wonk with the president . . . probably because his prior GOP opponents have been nowhere near as verbally fluent, nor as in command of policy theory and practice, as Obama was. McCain's debates were strings of tired GOP talking points, delivered in rather hectoring tone of voice. Alan Keyes was somehow even worse. That may be why Obama seemed so thrown when he got professorial, and Mitt Romney came back at him in the same vein, except briefer and punchier.
7. As Phil Klein points out, Romney did well by conceding policy ground. I have no idea why he waited until October to tack to the center, but I don't think that Obama was expecting it. (I sure wasn't.) As someone who thinks that Mitt Romney's previously outlined tax cuts are outrageously irresponsible to even contemplate with a $1 trillion deficit, I was glad to see him change his mind. But I assume that Obama was prepping to debate a somewhat different Mitt Romney than he actually got.
8. I'll close with one thing that I don't think mattered: the moderator. Obama actually got four more minutes than Romney, but spoke over 500 fewer words. People were complaining that Jim Lehrer asked excessively broad questions and let the candidates go on too long; the not-so-subtle implication was that he should have kept Romney from making so many winning points, kept Obama from rambling, and asked tougher, more pointed questions . . . of Mitt Romney. I didn't see anyone nominating any tough questions Lehrer should have asked of the guy who's actually been president for the last four years . . . except a handful of libertarians pretending to be surprised, and actually being outraged, that no one in America cares about the ongoing assaults on our civil liberties.
This was the wonkiest debate ever, about stuff that actually matters; it seems absurd to complain that Jim Lehrer didn't limit them to sound-bytes. And while yes, I would have loved to see questions about the 2 million people who are incarcerated in this country, or the war on drugs, neither candidate is interested in changing these things, so it wouldn't have been much of a "debate".
Of course, this hardly means that Romney is going to win the election; Obama is still the odds-on favorite. Debates just don't seem to make much difference. Still, for the wonks among us, it was nice to see the candidates actually get down into the policy weeds.