Obama’s Impossible Task: Thoughts Before the Second 2012 Presidential Debate
(For more commentary from a variety of contributors, see our pre-debate post over at my place. We’ll have post-debate thoughts as well, later on tonight.)
I still think the supposed awfulness of President Obama’s performance in the first debate a couple of weeks ago was, and remains, overblown, but, needless to say, he didn’t do well, Romney lied his way to a resounding “win” (according to polls and pundits alike), and a lot of the “soft” support in the race shifted to Romney.
Indeed, Romney managed simultaneously to energize depressed Republicans, who were increasingly seeing Romney as a terrible and largely unelectable candidate thanks largely to the Obama campaign’s successful defining of Romney as an out-of-touch, right-wing plutocrat (which he is, of course) over the summer and a less-than-steller Republican convention, and present himself as a credible candidate, thanks to his “Moderate Mitt” lies, to independents, undecideds, and “soft” Obama supporters, those who may have been on Obama’s side according to the polls but who hadn’t been paying all that much attention to the race and who, upon seeing Romney pretty much for the first time at the debate, were easily lured over to the Republican side.
Vice President Biden did a remarkable job last week, and generally the story since the first presidential debate has seen the president energized on the campaign trail and saying a lot of things so many of us wish he had said during the debate. But the fact is, debates matter, particularly in this American Idol, social media age of ours. They’re theater like never before and superficial snap judgements simply go viral before any of the substance can be sorted out.
The result has been a major bump for Romney both nationally and in swing states, a tightening of the race to the point, and even some polls showing Romney now leading.
So the pressure’s on President Obama tonight. Huge, massive pressure.
And I’m incredibly nervous.
I have no doubt that the president will do better, much better, than he did in the first debate. But Mitt will do well too. As I wrote after the first debate, it was ridiculous to think that Romney was going to go out there, curl up in a fetal position, and weep with fear just for being in Obama’s presence. He’s a seasoned debater and an experienced campaigner and politician. He’s a bad politician in many ways — as we’ve seen time and time again, including on his foreign trip over the summer — but he’s a pro, and he generally carries himself well. And I suspect he’ll do that again tonight. Ryan had a bit of the deer in headlights look to him last week, with Biden all over him, but Romney will look and sound presidential and very much worthy of being on the stage with the president.
Furthermore, the debate format doesn’t do the president any favors. As Jon Chait wrote earlier today:
A town hall debate is not really a debate. It is a kind of competitive question-answering show. The format revolves around undecided voters tossing queries at the candidates. The whole gestalt of the program is to privilege interaction between the candidates and the regular people speaking with them — for them to press each other with queries makes them look like they are avoiding the questions. Worst still, voters can be counted on to implore them to stop attacking each other and just get along.
And so the opportunities to expose the omissions and outright falsehoods in Romney’s repositioning will be vastly more limited than they were in the first debate, and the risks of attacking them much greater. This isn’t to say Obama can’t try to take Romney apart, only that the potential for such attacks to backfire is both large and — here is the crucial thing — uncertain.
I don’t disagree, but it’s possible that this format will play to the president’s advantage, as he’s able to connect more genuinely with “real” people than Romney is — because he’s genuinely compassionate and genuinely cares about the plight not just of the 47% but of all Americans, whereas Romney is a shameless panderer. But will this come out? Or, rather, will “soft” voters be able to pick up on this? Perhaps not, and another strong performance by Romney, however phony, could even the playing field in this regard.
On substance, I expect Romney to continue his dishonest “Moderate Mitt” routine, once again trying to lie his way into the hearts and minds of low-information voters. Obama can’t pull a Biden, because that was a different format and vice presidents can do things a little differently (especially Biden), but he needs to call Romney on his lying as much as possible. He also needs to continue the characterization of Romney that was so successful over the summer, through the Democratic convention, and into the fall — really, up until the first debate. He can’t be mean about it, but he needs to make the case that it’s all, the whole Romney-Ryan platform, a bunch of “malarkey,” as Biden said. Furthermore, he needs to talk about what he has done without being overly self-congratulatory, and he needs to talk about what he’d do in a second term in reasonable and detailed ways. That’s a tough task, all that together, and he needs to walk a careful line, but it’s certainly within his abilities to do it well.
But what about style, which is really all the media establishment cares about? It’s certainly possible that a strong performance by the president will be praised simply for being so much better than his terrible showing in the first debate. But, again, I expect Romney to stand firm, look and sound good (his lying notwithstanding), and at least appear to be the president’s equal. And that could mean a “win” for Mitt based simply on the fact that he’ll reinforce his new image as competent, sensible, and electable. That may not have any basis in the facts, but no matter, just as the facts don’t really matter in these things. It’s theater, and another good “act” from Romney could be enough to cement his newfound success, making it all the more difficult for Obama to gain the upper hand again over the campaign’s remaining three weeks.
So, yes, I’m worried that even a draw will essentially be a Romney “win” and that the media will play right along with the ongoing dumbing down of the American political process, allowing Romney to get away with a relentless deluge of dishonesty.
We shall see. It starts soon. And my anxiety is growing.