President Obama listens to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday.
Not since George H.W. Bush’s “I’m so bored I’m looking at my watch” turn in the town-hall debate against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 has a sitting president performed as lethargically as Barack Obama did in Denver. The juice that the Democratic Convention injected into his re-election effort was leeched out, in the span of 90 minutes, by his faltering, small-ball effort. The president didn’t just play it safe; he didn’t play at all.
That was not merely the reason Obama lost; it was also the reason Mitt Romney gave him a good old-fashioned stomping. The Mittster came across as a man who can’t wait to be president. Sure, he was overeager at times. Yes, he was unappealingly aggressive at times, especially as he mercilessly steamrolled the hapless and foggy Jim Lehrer. And of course, his “plans” made no sense whatsoever, as the president limply tried to point out.
But what Romney projected, in contrast to the droopy incumbent, was an electric energy—the thing that comes across most strongly on TV. Also, in another bright contrast with the president, he did more than drone on about policy particulars; he framed several of his answers by referencing larger principles, as when he talked about not leaving a huge national debt to future generations as a “moral issue.”
Obama’s apathy, like H.W. Bush’s 20 years ago, constituted an insult to the millions of Americans who tuned in. He didn’t make the case for his accomplishments. He didn’t project a vision for the next four years. He didn’t show that he gives a damn. As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson observed on a live chat, “It is not simply that Obama didn't attack; he didn't defend himself—or Obamacare.”
The lone bright spot for Obama fans: He certainly kept his powder dry for the next two debates. He seized on none of the massive openings he had to “zing” the Republican on, say, Bain Capital or the 47 percent or Ryanomics or reproductive rights.
Like Ronald Reagan, whose opening debate performance was similarly deflating for his backers in 1984, the president can still recover. But when he does—if he does—he won’t be doing it as the candidate with momentum. Romney now has it. Because he took it.