Two themes predominated this debate and will be addressed in the next two sessions: For so long Barack Obama has assumed that he will not face cross-examination from the media that he simply has little grasp of policy details, and in exasperation seems to look around for the accustomed helpful media crutch. But there is no such subsidy in a one-on-one debate, and only now it becomes clear just how the media for the last six years have enfeebled their favorite. And unlike 2008, there is now an Obama record to defend, rather than just repeating hope-and-change platitudes and vague generalities that have worked in the past. Romney is an effective debater and had a wealth of detail at his grasp that seemed to stun Obama, as if such a skilled opponent was not supposed to be part of the script. In essence, Obama looked tired, in the Nixonian mode, and he sounded like a petulant 1980 Jimmy Carter. After this debate is over, I expect the Obama team will go into full reset mode to re-prep the president for the next round. Tonight he either coasted or was not up to the task, and it showed, and he knew it — and if the same sub-par performance continues in the next two debates Obama will lose the election outright.
Second, Jim Lehrer seemed detached and impotent, and was simply not up to moderating a rigorous presidential debate. He was not careful to allot the time equitably between the two candidates; he did not enforce the announced time limits; and he did not manage the debate to ensure it covered the ground envisioned. The next moderator will have to be far more engaged and forceful.