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.
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.