Did Mitt Romney win the debate or did President Obama lose it? To those who watched, the answer is obvious: both. But in the media we hear endless explanations of why Obama lost and few comments on how effective and articulate Mitt Romney was.
Bob Woodward hypothesizes that Obama was, somehow, distracted — perhaps by some personal issues or maybe by a big international crisis we don’t know about yet. Al Gore, ever focused on climate issues, posited that the high altitude in Denver had enervated the president, as his handlers brought him out to the mile high city only a few hours before the debate.
These reasons may or may not have had anything to do with Obama’s terrible performance. But the point in floating them is to focus attention on something that may be repairable: Obama’s debating skills. They want to avoid having to zero in on Romney’s ability, knowledge, charm and charisma. These qualities are not likely to change and pose a permanent challenge to the liberal establishment.
Here’s my take on what Obama did wrong:
??He isn’t good at extemporaneous speaking, having gotten used to either speaking with a teleprompter and memorized script or delivering a well worn and frequently practiced standard stump speech. At his press conferences, Obama is without a script or a teleprompter but his halting performances in those venues are discounted as reasonable caution while facing tough press scrutiny. He also avoids holding press conferences as much as he can.
This man is simply unused to standing on his own two feet and relying on creativity and intellect to generate content. He is like an actor in search of a script.
??Like Reagan in the first debate of 1984, Obama was so muscle-bound by government details that he could not shape answers into attractive sound bites. It requires something of the outsider to approach these issues and speak about them succinctly and comprehensively. It is very hard for a president to back away from the details and speak like an outsider.
??Obama is so arrogant that he probably did not take kindly to correction or even counseling during the debate preparation. He won the last election, remember? He handled McCain easily in debate. He even bested the formidable Hillary Clinton. Don’t bother me with advice, one can imagine him saying, I know what I’m doing. It is easy to see advisors shying away from criticizing him during prep sessions for fear that they would be out in the cold afterwards.
Can Obama clean up his act? Can he do better in the next two debates? He won’t learn the key to extemp speaking, but he can learn to speak in pithy sound bites which he can easily memorize. He probably will be more open to coaching and criticism in light of his dismal maiden debate of 2012.
But Romney’s abilities — the real highlight of this debate — will not diminish. He will handle whatever Obama dishes out and will be his usual fluent, well prepared self.
Are there parallels between this year’s debates and those in 1984? In the first debate Reagan appeared disjointed and distracted; everyone blamed it on his age. Yet he came back during the second debate with a rejoinder that won the election: “I will not use my opponent’s youth and inexperience as an issue in this campaign.” No quip will save Obama next time. He’s up against Mitt Romney. That’s no John McCain!