As I read over the transcript of the debate, a couple of things struck me. First, on the page it doesn't look nearly as bad for Obama as a lot of people are saying. Of course, the debate doesn't exist for most people on the page, but what I found frustrating wasn't so much that Obama said things that were bad in and of themselves, but that he let so many opportunities pass by.
And what a lot of it comes down to is his seeming inability to use direct language. We heard leading up to the debate that his advisers were encouraging him to make his answers shorter, but length isn't his problem. It's that he uses passive constructions and language that hedges when he should be speaking more clearly. To show what I mean, here are a few of the things he said during the debate when he was criticizing Romney, and how they might have been put more clearly. Here's something he said about Romney's tax plan:
Now, Governor Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he's been asked a — over a hundred times how you would close those deductions and loopholes and he hasn't been able to identify them.
By saying "he hasn't been able to identify them" he leaves open any number of interpretations. Is he hiding something, or is he having trouble remembering what's in his plan? Here's what Obama could have said to provide a vivid illustration for voters of the fact that Romney is actively refusing to say which loopholes he'd close:
"Governor Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. But when you ask him which loopholes and deductions he'll eliminate, he refuses to say which ones. It's a secret. Governor, a lot of people are watching right now, so here's your chance to level with them. Can you name even one loophole you'd eliminate?"
Romney would have had only two choices: refuse to name a loophole (likely), or name one, which Obama could then attack as being totally inadequate. Either way, he would have created a vivid moment and exposed the contradiction at the heart of Romney's proposal.
Here's another discussion about taxes. In this quote, Obama seems to think that everyone will understand that when he says "2001 and 2003" he means the Bush tax cuts. If 10 percent of people watching actually grasped the reference, I'd be shocked. Here's what he said:
Look, we've tried this — we've tried both approaches. The approach that Governor Romney's talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003. And we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years. We ended up moving from surplus to deficits. And it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
I don't know if Obama thinks it would be ungracious to cast aspersions on his predecessor, but the name "Bush" was not mentioned once last night. Much of Obama's answer was fine, but here's what he could have said: "Governor Romney's plan sounds awfully familiar, because it's exactly what George W. Bush told us. In 2001 and 2003, Bush said that all we needed to do was cut taxes for the wealthy, and everything would be great. And we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years. We ended up moving from surplus to deficits. And it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And now, Governor Romney wants to duplicate George W. Bush's economic policy. I don't." That would have forced Romney to either defend or repudiate Bush, neither of which he wants to do.
Here's part of what Obama said on health care:
Governor Romney says we should replace it. I'm just going to repeal it, but we can replace it with something. But the problem is he hasn't described what exactly we'd replace it with other than saying we're going to leave it to the states. But the fact of the matter is that some of the prescriptions that he's offered, like letting you buy insurance across state lines, there's no indication that that somehow is going to help somebody who's got a pre-existing condition be able to finally buy insurance. In fact, it's estimated that by repealing "Obamacare," you're looking at 50 million people losing health insurance at a time when it's vitally important.
The Affordable Care Act is Obama's greatest achievement, and defending it means making the moral case not only for why it's good but why taking it away would be awful. Here's what he could have said:
"Governor Romney says he wants to repeal Obamacare on his first day. Here's what that means. If Governor Romney gets his way, if you have a child with cancer, your child won't be able to get health insurance. If Governor Romney gets his way, young people won't be guaranteed that they can stay on their parents' health insurance. If Governor Romney gets his way, seniors will pay more for medicine, because he'll re-open the Medicare prescription drug donut hole. If Governor Romney gets his way, seniors will pay more for preventive care. If Governor Romney gets his way, insurance companies will be able to toss you off your coverage if you get sick. And if Governor Romney gets his way, millions more people will be forced go without health insurance. Those are some of the benefits of Obamacare, and those are the things Governor Romney has promised to take away on his first day in office. Now, he's going to say, 'Oh no, I want to keep all the good things about Obamacare. After we take all those benefits away, we'll figure out some way to give them back to you eventually.' Don't believe it for a second."
And finally, Obama not only passed up opportunities to reinforce the attacks he makes on Romney in his ads and on the stump, when he tried, it was almost apologetic. Here's something he said about student loans:
Governor Romney, I genuinely believe, cares about education. But when he tells a student that, you know, you should borrow money from your parents to go to college, you know, that indicates the degree to which, you know, there may not be as much of a focus on the fact that folks like myself, folks like Michelle, kids probably who attend University of Denver just don't have that option.
"There may not be as much of a focus"? Really? If you're going to attack him, attack him: "Governor Romney got asked by a student struggling to afford college what he should do, and he told him to borrow money from his parents. Well Governor, I've got some news for you. Most parents don't have an extra $100,000 lying around."
Obviously, Obama is going to try to do better in the second and third debates. But doing so isn't just a matter of having some coffee beforehand, or making his answers shorter. It's also about how he talks and how he engages Romney.