Did Romney win the debate or did Obama lose it? To those who watched, the answer is obvious: both. But on the media we hear endless explanations of why Obama lost but 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 about which we don’t know yet. Al Gore, ever focused on climate issues, posited that the high altitude in Denver had enervated the president since 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 because 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 is so unused to speaking with a teleprompter or a memorized script or to delivering a well worn and frequently practiced standard stump speech that he isn’t good at extemporaneous speaking. At his press conferences, Obama is without a script or a teleprompter but his halting performances in those venues are discounted as reasonable caution 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 his own 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 the details of government 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 yet 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 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 how advisors shied 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 and 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 and everyone blamed it on his age. But he came back in 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.” But no quip will save Obama next time. He’s up against Mitt Romney. That’s no John McCain!
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