How could Barack Obama have been so feeble a debater? Mitt Romney gave him one opening after another, but Obama stuck closely to prescripted talking points.
Romney’s strategy, as it has been throughout the campaign, was to lie, and for the most part Obama failed to call him on it. Romney essentially disavowed the tax and budget plan he has been running on for eighteen months, claiming that it was possible to cut tax rates and make up the difference by closing loopholes. Obama correctly pointed out that the arithmetic didn’t work. But Obama failed to challenge Romney to identify just which loopholes he would close.
On Social Security and Medicare, Romney gave Obama another opening that the president failed to maximize. Romney said that nobody at or near retirement age needed to fear any changes. The obvious implication is Social Security and Medicare cuts for younger people. Obama had a nice one-liner—"If you are 54 or 55, you might want to pay attention."—but he failed to drive the point home.
On Dodd-Frank, Romney told one whopper after another. He claimed that the law protects banks that are “too big to fail.” What Dodd-Frank actually does it to authorize, for the first time, how to shut down such banks.
For the most part, Obama was operating on Republican territory—he admitted that his health plan was a copy of Romney’s; he was for tax cuts, too; for small business, too; for budget balance, too.
To hear Romney, he would preserve America’s social safety net, not cut taxes on the rich, and make sure that Medicare was preserved for America’s seniors. All this flies in the face of what the Romney campaign claimed for 18 months, but for the most part Obama let Romney off the hook.
This is the Obama we saw in 2009 and 2010—an Obama reluctant to be too partisan or too aggressive, a diffident Obama, above the fray. Romney went for Obama’s throat, and he managed to do so without seeming mean. Obama not only took the assaults, but failed to maximize the several openings that Romney gave him.
Wednesday's debate did serious damage. There are two more to come. If Obama does not pick up his game, he is a one-term president.