Earlier this election year, Barack Obama lamented that he has not been good enough at telling Americans the “story” of his administration’s record.
On Wednesday night, the U.S. President more than lived up to his self-criticism. And for good measure, he also failed to tell the story of what he wants to do in the next four years, and why it’s better than what Republican nominee Mitt Romney would do.
As much as Mr. Romney exceeded expectations in the first of this fall’s presidential debates, Mr. Obama failed to meet them.
To some extent, that was probably inevitable. Mr. Romney’s dismal campaign to date had set too low a bar, considering that he’s been known previously to fare well in the format. And it’s never easy for a sitting president to be the only one on stage with a record to defend, and to live up to his office while trading punches.
Still, Mr. Obama’s performance – which even his campaign team had trouble defending, and which helped Mr. Romney elbow his way back into a race many thought was nearly done – was baffling on a number of fronts. Here are some of the most glaring things the President failed to do:
1.) He didn’t relate
If politicians humanizing themselves and their policies by speaking about men, women and children they’ve met or been inspired by is a cliché, that’s because it works. Mr. Obama has done plenty of it previously, but on Wednesday night it was Mr. Romney who from the outset was talking about people he’s encountered on the campaign trail.
Mr. Obama passingly referenced a “woman I met in North Carolina who decided at 55 to go back to school because she wanted to inspire her daughter.” Mostly, though, he indulged his inner policy wonk with rambling defences of his record that alternately traded in numbers and the abstract.
That was particularly noticeable on “Obamacare,” with the President failing to explain in a memorable way how his health reforms would improve Americans’ live.
2.) He didn’t go after his opponent’s vulnerabilities
Mr. Obama’s campaign clearly decided that it didn’t want to compromise his likeability, or his presidential aura, by getting too deep into the muck; better to leave that to surrogates. His politeness, though, went a little far.
Before the debate, the question was not whether Mr. Romney would be forced to defend his infamous comments about the “47 per cent” – an issue that raises legitimate questions about how the Republican nominee sees his country – but when. Then Mr. Obama proceeded to let him off the hook by not even hinting at the issue, let alone raising it directly.
3.) He ignored one of his biggest selling points
Through the campaign, Mr. Obama has boasted of saving the auto industry with a bailout that Mr. Romney criticized – helping the President to a big lead in Michigan, once considered a potential battleground, and giving him an advantage in rust-belt swing states such as Ohio. More broadly, it has helped him beat back the charge that he’s done nothing to help a struggling economy.
Mr. Obama flicked at the issue a couple of times during the debate, saying in his opening remarks that “the auto industry was on the brink of collapse” when he took office, and noting in his closing ones the restored pride of auto workers “in Toledo or Detroit.” But that was as far as he went, and in between he seemed to forget about the issue altogether.
4.) He didn’t draw a contrast on values
One of Mr. Obama’s better moments of the campaign came during his speech to the Democratic National Convention, when he spoke about a definition of citizenship that includes “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” It was a way of making his case for equality of opportunity, and corporate responsibility, and acceptance.
A late-debate segment about how the candidates perceive the role of government gave the President a huge opening to restate this case, or if not then a comparable one. Instead, he launched into an anodyne and forgettable explanation of government’s ability to create “ladders of opportunity,” focused largely on a case for public education that Mr. Romney didn’t really seem to disagree with in principle.
If the campaign is largely about motivating parties’ would-be supporters to get out and vote, this was a big missed opportunity.
5.) He wasn’t eloquent
As Mr. Romney’s campaign took pains to note during the ritual dampening of expectations, Mr. Obama is one of the great orators in his country’s modern history. Suffice it to say one wouldn’t have known that on Wednesday night.
A great speaker is not necessarily a great debater. But for candidates, presidential debates are more about speaking to a great number of voters than to each other.
Mr. Obama spent much of the night stumbling over his own words, a disproportionate number of which were “um” or “uh.” A little of the soaring rhetoric for which he’s known would have gone a long away. That he instead let Mr. Romney come off as the most eloquent man on stage is among the many things the President will be left to consider as he prepares for the final two debates.