The Campaign Spot

You Can’t Improve a Debater Who Sees Losses as Wins

In light of Toby Harnden’s shocking story about President Obama’s assessment of his debate performance, maybe Andrew Sullivan’s panic attack is just good common sense.

When President Barack Obama stepped off the stage in Denver last week the 60 million Americans watching the debate against Mitt Romney already knew it had been a disaster for him.

But what nobody knew, until now, was that Obama believed he had actually won.

In an extraordinary insight into the events leading up to the 90 minute showdown which changed the face of the election, a Democrat close to the Obama campaign today reveals that the President also did not take his debate preparation seriously, ignored the advice of senior aides and ignored one-liners that had been prepared to wound Romney.

The Democrat said that Obama’s inner circle was dismayed at the ‘disaster’ and that he believed the central problem was that the President was so disdainful of Romney that he didn’t believe he needed to engage with him.

See, now it’s time for Democrats to panic, and/or for others in the administration to consider invoking the 25th Amendment, because any president who is so completely out of touch with what’s happening directly in front of him may “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” I exaggerate… slightly.

It’s easy to think of one of Obama’s funnier, and perhaps more revealing self-assessments: “You know, I actually believe my own bull****.”

The description of Obama – so disdainful, he didn’t feel he needed to really interact with Romney – seems to fit the demeanor we saw in the president, and other descriptions of the mood within Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters. The problem is that this sets up a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don’t decision for Obama in the next presidential debate next week.

If Obama tears into Romney from the opening moments, he comes across as a man who realizes he’s losing, and who’s desperate to change the dynamic. He may look harsh, angry, and divisive. His base will probably love it, but all of the voters who have shifted to Romney in the past week will probably feel better about their choice. The tone of Obama’s performance last week was that he’s spent – he’s out of energy, out of ideas, out of hope and now just hoping to plod along for the next four years. Ninety minutes of Obama trying to recite his attack ads’ greatest hits before a town hall audience will only reinforce the perception, “this guy’s done, he’s got nothing else left to offer.”

Keep in mind that Romney proved in the first debate to be much more nimble, persuasive, and personable than almost anyone expected. Obama could very well go on the attack and lose the exchange.

But if Obama plays Mr. Nice Guy, his base is likely to be irate and depressed once again, since attacks on Romney are like catnip to them. In a way, failing to take on Romney would only reinforce the perception that Obama thinks he’s above this, that he thinks these debates are silly wastes of time, and that he doesn’t think his opponent is worth taking seriously.

Ideally, Obama would defend his own policies and decisions and point out risks in Romney’s approach, while taking a respectful and perhaps even gracious tone. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine Obama doing that; he would need to show respect for an opponent he clearly doesn’t respect.

In a way, Obama’s problem is that he’s too honest: he doesn’t take Romney seriously, and he cannot imagine how anyone else ever could.

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