Maybe we will have a race after all.
Mitt Romney’s performance during his first face-to-face debate with President Barack Obama might not be a complete “game-changer,” but it could ensure that the presidential race will go down to the wire.
For that reason, Wednesday night qualifies as a big win for Gov. Romney and Republicans.
The general reaction from pundits of all political persuasions was surprise at the former Massachusetts governor’s confidence and grasp of his own message, which he pursued skillfully Wednesday night, and bewilderment at President Obama’s seemingly disinterested performance.
Sports analogies abound in politics, and a good analogy of the president’s appearance in Denver was that he had dropped into the prevent defense. Well, clichés abound in sports and politics, too. And the old cliché about the prevent defense doing nothing but “preventing victories” is appropriate here.
Whether it was overconfidence in himself and his abilities in front of the camera, or whether there really is something to the fact that the president doesn’t do well in unscripted, challenging environments, the debate was a setback. President Obama does great on friendly TV talk shows with Ellen Degeneres or Oprah; a high-stakes debate across from a confoundingly confident, prepared, respectful yet aggressive opponent would appear to be something else entirely.
One could almost see the president looking around the room for someone to steer him into safer, more self-serving waters. But that wasn’t Ellen or Oprah moderating the debate, it was venerable PBS newsman Jim Lehrer who, despite any personal political leanings he might have, allowed the debate to flow for much of the time on its own. (I for one enjoyed the format.)
Of course, Democrat spinmeisters know what they saw Wednesday night. There is little doubt that they will urge the president to be more aggressive himself and to try and touch more of a chord with the audiences in the next debates. But any Democrat who hearkens back to the just so-so performance President Obama delivered in his acceptance speech to close out the Democratic National Convention — one of the most important speeches in his political life — should get even more nervous about the coming appearances.
The president was overshadowed in his own DNC by former President Bill Clinton, a figure that, by the way, still looms over the Obama camp. President Obama, in one of more than a few ill-advised utterances Wednesday night, even evoked what he apparently esteems as the good, old Clinton years ... of nearly 20 years ago.
This is 2012, a time in which the aggregate economic, fiscal and foreign policy issues make the Clinton years seem like a ridiculously quaint time of plenty and ease for America.
Meanwhile, where does the Obama camp go in the next debates to undo Gov. Romney’s initial success? There will almost certainly be discussion about foreign-policy issues, which were absent from Wednesday night. As much of the hope from the so-called Arab Spring evaporates, as Iran sounds a dangerous and provocative drumbeat and as the Obama administration still squirms over the amateurish handling of events leading up to the assassination of a U.S. Ambassador in Libya, there doesn’t appear to be much safety or comfort in these topics for the president.
Of course, the prime effort will be placed on seeking — and attacking — details of Gov. Romney’s economic plan. Indeed, the Republican challenger will have to offer more specifics in the coming days to build on any momentum he might have turned Wednesday night. He will be particularly vulnerable to questions asking him to add up his math regarding claims he can reduce the deficit without raising taxes.
But President Obama’s specifics are already apparent. As Gov. Romney pointed out, nationwide unemployment remains at more than 8 percent while the nation is being crushed by trillions in debt. One of Gov. Romney’s most scoring points was when he noted that, while the economy suffered, President Obama put so much political capital and “passion” into passing Obamacare, which can only add to the nation’s debt and will likely increase household expenses for millions of Americans.
The president hand-delivered another scoring point for Gov. Romney when he mentioned “oil companies” and their subsidies. The Republican candidate immediately seized on the fiasco of Solyndra and the billions of dollars in subsidies to “green energy.” Gov. Romney didn’t even specifically mention that the price of gasoline, during the Obama administration, has risen to $4 a gallon, an expense that is compounded all the way to the prices paid for the food they eat and the clothes they wear.
Race? Oh, yeah, I think we have a race.
(Jim Eckstrom is managing editor of the Olin Times Herald. His email is email@example.com.)