Politics & Policy

The Game Changes

Obama’s debate performance was not out of character — and his supporters are worried.

Usually after a presidential debate, both sides spin the results. But after the first face-off between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, Obama’s exasperated handlers made no such effort. How could they when most opinion polls revealed that two-thirds of viewers thought Obama lost?

Within minutes of the parting handshake, the liberal base went ballistic. Bill Maher, Chris Matthews, and Michael Moore all but accused Obama of embarrassing the progressive cause. The post-debate spin focused not on whether the president had been creamed by challenger Mitt Romney, but rather on how that had been possible.

For a while, there were excuses galore. Was the meltdown due to Denver’s high altitude? Perhaps the president was distracted over national-security issues. Had Obama taken a pre-debate sedative for tension? Surely the rapid-recall Romney must have sneaked in written talking points on his Kleenex.

A few days later, there were accusations from the Obama camp that Romney had been “untruthful” in the back-and-forth — a post-facto charge not leveled by the president in the middle of the debate, but only afterwards in his prepared campaign speeches.

Yet Obama was not that out of character in the debate — at least not in comparison with his past performances. Obama’s professorial detachment; his condescension; his long, meandering answers; his avoidance of direct questions; his occasional petulance; and his frequent verbal tics, stalls, and stutters were all pretty normal for him. Roll the tape of any prior debate, press conference, or question-and-answer session, and what you see is about the same as we saw the other night.

Why, then, the hysteria over a typical Obama performance? What was radically different was not Obama’s normal workmanlike performance, but two novel twists.

This was the first debate in which Obama has had a record to defend. In 2000, he ran for Congress in a primary race against Bobby Rush and attacked the incumbent. In 2004, he ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, offering all sorts of promises — but never ran for reelection on their fulfillment.

In 2008, a blank-slate Obama ran for president and won by lumping in challenger John McCain with unpopular incumbent president George W. Bush — while offering banalities like “hope and change” and “yes, we can!”

The debate with Romney, however, marked the first time in his national political life that Obama has had the harder task of defending a record of governance. That he could not make the case onstage for a successful four years suggests either that his record is nearly indefensible — 42 months of unemployment above 8 percent, more than $5 trillion in new debt, record numbers of Americans on food stamps, anemic economic growth — or that Obama believes voters don’t care that much. Perhaps they will again be mesmerized by his promises of millions of new green jobs, more government entitlements, and more attacks on the better-off who haven’t paid “their fair share.”

Barack Obama has always felt that it was enough to show up rather than to achieve. We all know that he got into Occidental College and Columbia University, was law-review editor at Harvard, was offered a professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, and was elected senator and president. But we have rarely heard of a significant record of actual achievement as a student, academic, or legislator — until his first term as president. 

This was also the first time that Obama has faced a skilled debater. In Obama’s 2000 debate with the plodding Rush, the latter coasted — rightly assuming that his long incumbency would be enough to defeat the so-so challenger Obama.

In the 2004 senatorial race, Obama’s main rivals in the primary and general elections imploded due to mysteriously leaked divorce records. The last-minute fill-in candidate in the general election, Alan Keyes, was deemed wacky and not a serious opponent.

Obama ended up mostly achieving draws when jousting with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. He won two of the three debates with nondescript presidential rival McCain by consistently attacking Bush and blaming the 2008 financial meltdown on Republicans.

In previous debates, Obama sounded not much different than he did last week against Romney. Obama customarily looked down, gave disjointed, off-topic sermons, and stuttered uncertainly. That did not matter all that much, given that his youth and professorial air contrasted well with the inept Bobby Rush and Alan Keyes, and he appeared on camera as a fresh face in contrast to old, familiar, retread politicos like Clinton and McCain.

Obama’s handlers know all this. No wonder what worries them is not that Obama was off his game against Romney, but that the game itself — not Obama — has suddenly changed.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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