Cold Comfort

Obama Lost the Debate the Right Way

At least the president defended his own record with integrity, writes Deepak Chopra.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Personally, I was glad that President Obama debated the way he did, despite alarmist signals from commentators who had already set up a victory for Romney in advance. They got what they predicted. But the first presidential debate came at the peak of a highly effective fall campaign by the president and his team. They successfully painted a negative portrait of Governor Romney that gave them a lead in all the swing states. That portrait had to be set up against the actual person that Romney is. Debates exist so that voters can see who they are voting for.

At the height of his appeal, sometime during the Republican primary season, Romney rose to the status of “eh.” The party faithful were not very enthusiastic about him; the right wing was positively distrustful. It was very smart of Romney to realize that he had to throw out the window every policy, virtually, that he has campaigned on so far. Obama was thrown off stride by Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch tactics. Undecided voters don’t pay attention until the last minute in the election season. Many won’t realize that Romney, suddenly playing the part of a nice, reasonable governor from Massachusetts, was showing a totally different face. But this kind of flip-flopping can be used against him, too.

There were times during the debate when any progressive was probably shouting, “Liar, liar, pants on fire” into the television. That Obama didn’t do the same has caused dismay among the ranks. But there has been constant pressure on him to stand up for his policies and run on his record. He did that. Acting with complete genuineness, he told the nation that his policies have averted disaster and set the economy on the right footing, while he pointed out that Romney would roll Washington back to the Bush era.

Romney may get a second look, although presidential debates rarely change the course of the race. It’s an open question whether Romney achieved much more than becoming the “eh” candidate once more. Democrats feared him when the conventional wisdom was that Obama was playing a losing hand—with historically high unemployment, sluggish growth, and a rising deficit, he would lose if the election became a referendum on his record. The enthusiasm gap supposedly favored Romney. Partisan voter ID laws would disenfranchise a huge number of poor, young, elderly, and minority voters.

Most of that didn’t happen. As it stands, Obama by no means holds a losing hand. He was on the verge of making this a breakout election, and if the race tightens because the president debated with integrity and allowed Romney to become more human, that strikes me as fair. There’s still plenty of time to call Romney on his whoppers. The PACs and super PACs will keep drilling the 47 percent theme. Romney landed no decisive blows. Instant analysis of Twitter didn’t indicate that voters were being swayed. The main topic of conversation, and the only big trend, was Big Bird. The progress that Obama has made over the last six months should be enough for him to win—and win the right way. The candidate who inspires hope, trust, compassion, and stability, and who outlines specific action steps to achieve his goals deserves to win.