“Utterly Inadequate”

Official photographic portrait of US President...

( Wikipedia)

That was how Tom Brokaw summed up President Obama’s performance at the debate, and that seemed to capture much of the public reaction, especially from the staunchest of Obama supporters.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

(Wikipedia)

Political wit Bill Maher, who has donated one million dollars to an Obama Super PAC,  sounded liked he might want his money back in several tweets, including  “i cant believe I’m saying this but Obama DOES look like he needs a teleprompter.”   In the end he proclaimed Romney the winner of the debate.

Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, who undoubtedly remains convinced he is a hard hitting interviewer, but to me has morphed over time into a cheer captain for the Obama team, was almost apoplectic over the Obama performance.   “Where was Obama?” he yelled.  “He looked like he was enduring the debate.”  The President often stared down and sometimes grimaced while Romney focused his eyes and his zingers on him.

Of course, pundits have mentioned that challengers of a President have usually won the first televised debate, and we know how that worked out for John Kerry, for example.  Recently the pollsters have generally been tossing dirt over Romney’s chances like his campaign is already dead, so how is the President supposed to get up for the challenge?  Maybe being the leader of the free world has taken a little out of Obama lately, and he just couldn’t get past the feeling of having to endure an obvious etch-a-sketch loser like Mitt Romney.   Any athlete knows you don’t want to play a weak team because it doesn’t pump up the competitive juices.

Tied to that is the coaching Obama got or didn’t get for the debate.   Apparently, they did not want him to come off as too aggressive at or dismissive of Romney  (no mention of the 47% or Bain).  That succeeded.  He came off as blah instead.   But certainly they did not coach him to often look down nor to grimace.   He seemed to come up with those techniques on his own.

O. K., so most agree Obama’s performance was “inadequate”, but let’s remember one thing.  We are talking about ONE NINETY MINUTE PERFORMANCE.   Given all there is by which to judge the two candidates, this really shouldn’t mean that much.  Or should it?  Apparently it did to several members of a focus group of 24  “undecideds” who discussed their reactions to the debate on Fox TV.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that after months and months of us being inundated with political blitz, they could find 24 undecideds.   I’ve been assuming what few there are must be in a coma or lost somewhere, like in the Amazon basin.  But pollsters say I’m wrong, estimating that 5% of likely voters are still undecided.  Anyway, pollster Frank Luntz gathered 24 of them, 13 of whom had voted for Obama in the last election.  By the end of the debate, though, a big majority of the group either seemed to favor Romney, or at least hadn’t decided.   Obama didn’t seem to pick up a vote.  One guy had become very decided, saying he would vote for Romney because he showed a better “grasp of the facts”.

What facts?  There are millions of related facts and Romney chose some and was crisp and sharp in selling them.   Given more time and attention (as numerous commentators have done in postmortems), those “facts” reveal more holes than Swiss cheese.  But for whatever reasons, Obama failed to bite into them, barely even a nibble.

O. K. then.   The Emmy for best Presidential performance in a TV debate goes to Mitt Romney.   Now that the West Wing is no longer on the air, the competition is slim.   What I wonder about is how many swing voters are as impressionable as that Luntz focus group?   Many did not seem to realize that acting more presidential than the President for 90 minutes, by appearing more energized and in better command of the facts, is not equivalent to being the President and doing presidential things, especially when many of the so-called facts are essentially fictions.

This focus group of “undecideds” did make me wonder whether many of those swing voters come election day will vote  as whimsically as me choosing sweet and sour pork on a Chinese menu over beef and broccoli.  I don’t know why.  Broccoli just seems less appealing at the moment.

One thing for sure about that debate is that Mitt Romney acted like the guy who wants the presidency more.   This is partially because Barack Obama already is the President.  He already has the bone that Romney wants.   The problem in debating might be that Obama has come to believe that he has already won.

Given the capriciousness of some American voters, though, the race may not be a done deal, especially if between now and Nov 6, Mitt adds to his collection of my imaginary Emmy’s.

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The Thrilla in Manila….er, Denver

Tomorrow night Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off in their first of three debates. It is being played up like a heavy weight battle reminding me of one of the most famous, that won by Ali over Frazier in Manilla back in 1975, their third and last fight .   Both candidates have been in training camps verbally sparring with mock opponents, and the pundits have speculated on who needs the win more (Romney) and who has the most to lose (Obama), etc., etc.

Viewers might want to do some of their own fight preparation and, since the first half of the Wednesday debate deals with the economy, you might want to read a Monday column by Robert Samuelson:  The truth deficit from both campaigns.

As Samuelson points out:  “What defines this campaign, in part, is a yawning gap between the political rhetoric and the country’s budget problems.”  You know, such as the imminent fiscal cliff and the fact that neither side has devised a multi-year budget plan that really tackles the problem of our burgeoning national debt (I know, the Ryan plan supposedly does, but even in theory (dubious theory at that), it doesn’t balance the budget until, oh, about 28 years from now at best.  Maybe just in time for my 95th birthday.

The chart below projects our downward trajectory of  S. S. and Medicare debt if we do nothing to alter its course:

Medicare & Social Security Deficits Chart

The big unaddressed issue is that too many of us are beginning to retire and fall apart at about the same time.  As Samuelson puts it:  “As you know, the great driver here is the retirement of baby boomers. Between 2011 and 2025, the number of retirees on Social Security will grow by nearly 50 percent to 66 million people; Medicare experiences a similar rise. The resulting spending surge perpetuates huge budget deficits.”  (emphasis added)

Now I will be interested to see if host Jim Lehrer will come up with a question that prompts either candidate to address this issue.   Without tackling that and what it suggests about the need for both budget cuts and increased taxes (and not just on the richest among us), I envision the first half of the debate with both candidates playing rope-a-dope, only seeming to be fighting a real fight.

Oh, they will argue over the  issue of jobs, of course, but who really knows what either could get accomplished in that area given likely continued gridlock in Congress?   Since the economy is slowly picking up, that will produce more jobs in itself, regardless of who is President.   At least that seems a frequent prediction of late (the “fiscal cliff” might have a say about that, though)

Included in the second half of the debate will be the topic of government, and here I hope Jim Lehrer asks this question prompted by Matt Miller in a column:   “….ask the candidates if they are in favor of restoring majority rule in this country. In other words, ask them if they would urge the Senate to scrap the filibuster – and if not, how do they expect to get anything done?”

I will be surprised if either the burgeoning baby-boomer-budget-issue or that of the filibuster are even raised by Lehrer, but they should be since the former is our greatest budget challenge and the latter seems crucial to returning Congress to being a functioning body.

If either point is brought up, I will stop channel surfing and actually pay attention.