Having reflected on the first presidential debate for a week — and watched the two campaigns react to its wake — I think there are, perhaps, three ways of looking at the situation in which Barack Obama now finds himself.
The first approach is to subscribe to what I would call the “points” theory. This holds that last Wednesday’s debate has been blown out of all proportion and that the president can regain his standing with strong performances in the remaining two. It casts presidential debates in the same mold as high-school debating competitions: Sure, you did badly in the first round, but there are two more opportunities to recoup the lost points and to win through. Given that the president allegedly disdains Mitt Romney, and that he has apparently bought into the idea that the only thing conservatives have on their side is lying — and, comically, given Obama’s whole shtick, “performance” — it will be tempting for the Obama team to conclude that because their candidate is (naturally) right about everything, he can easily regain the lost ground by “demonstrating” that Romney is a fraudster. Many on the left appear to have bought this line, complaining that Obama failed to “expose” Romney because he was tired or shocked or overly polite. The implication of this, of course, is that if Obama wanted to beat Romney he could.
Conversely, another way of parsing what happened last Wednesday is that the emperor lost his clothes. I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation, being far less impressed by Obama’s abilities than are many of my colleagues. This approach presumes that, for more than four years now, Obama has managed to sell himself as something he is not. Helped along by an adoring press, his strengths as a speaker and a set-piece performer have been amplified, while he has been allowed to escape almost all situations in which his weaknesses might be exposed. He was, therefore, telling the truth when he claimed that he was an “okay” debater. I have always seen the president as more of a Madonna than a Tony Bennett — as a performer greatly reliant upon lavish stage sets, careful scripting, one hell of a light show, and a team of aides carefully adjusting the AutoTune. We have rarely seen him in a power failure. On Wednesday, we did. If this view of things is correct, it will be hard for Obama to recover. If you are a lousy extemporaneous speaker, there is little that you can do about it when you are up against a good one.
The third way of looking at things is a combination of the two, that is to say that Obama is a talented man, but that he has taken a real — although not fatal — hit by showing such vulnerability. By way of example: My soccer team, Manchester United, have been rather good since about 1992. Every other team in the league knows that. The advantage to this is that United have gone into most of their games with a clear psychological advantage: We are the great Manchester United. But if a smaller team — or a team perceived to be smaller — beats Manchester United, that loss matters much, much more than just depriving them of three points. All of a sudden, other teams — many of whose players have been raised on the idea of United’s invincibility, and some of whom presumably cannot close their eyes and imagine winning a game against them — begin to believe that they have a shot. Headlines declaring that United were “awful” or “disorganized” thus have an effect that far and away transcends the immediate loss. In situations such as these, it is vital that the team responds with a decisive win, or the perception of weakness grows. This renders it important that Obama comes back roaring next week.
I do not know which of these is true, or how the president’s first debate performance will factor in to the eventual election result. But I do know this: Last week, in front of 70 million people, Barack Obama lost his air of invincibility. In the short term, that is going to give Romney one hell of a confidence boost; in the long term, should Obama win a second term, it is going to alter his relationship with the country, with the opposition, and with his base. It will also change the character of the election. Until Wednesday, the Obama campaign team had effectively defined Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat who somehow managed simultaneously to be both a vapid flip-flopper and an ideological extremist. It says something negative about the attention span of the electorate that a man such as Romney could be so effectively painted that way for so long, and something positive about the electorate that it only took one debate for the myth to be dissolved. Suffice it to say that, in the minds of voters, this is no longer an election between Scrooge McDuck and Superman.