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President Barack Obama was puzzlingly passive and professorial in his debate last night against Mitt Romney. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Obama: Forever Zung

Three (unsurprising) surprises from his first-debate zinging.

BY Theo Anderson

An email with the subject line “Hey” appeared in my inbox late last night. It was from Barack Obama. Fresh off his first debate with Mitt Romney, there was something he wanted me to know: “I hope I made you proud out there, explaining the vision we share for this country.”

I appreciate the thought. So I hope it isn’t ungracious to say: not exactly. 

What I thought about while the president was explaining our shared vision was my friend who’s a conspiracy theorist regarding professional sports. His idea is that not every game is rigged, but that every season unfolds in pretty much the way some interested party—television executives or team owners—has pre-determined. Some teams are allowed to make the playoffs; some not. The knowledge that the fix is in doesn’t make him less of a fan. But it does lessen the sting when, as almost always happens, his teams miss the playoffs or under-perform in the postseason.

For the record, I’m not a conspiracy theorist of any kind. But it was hard not to watch the debate last night without the odd feeling that the whole thing was unfolding according to a script that called for Romney to raise his game several notches, Obama to stumble, and the small but stable lead that the president has held for several months to diminish or disappear over the next few days.

As it turned out, the much-discussed “zingers” that the Romney camp had been preparing were just a big head fake. Yes, there were a couple of those, though they weren’t all that effective. (For example: Obama doesn’t just pick winners and losers when it comes to the green-energy industry. He picks losers.) But the whole debate was in effect one big zing. And what made it so odd was Obama’s passive collaboration in the process of his own zinging.

Go back to the tape. Rewind. Watch it again. Pay close attention. There were so many things that, as a conspiracy theorist would say, just don’t add up. Here are three:

A big-hearted, compromise-loving Mitt Romney emerges

Who knew that one reason Romney is running for president is that, as he said more than once, people are hurting and the middle class is being crushed—and he wants to relieve their suffering? And who knew that Romney has such an expansive view of the government’s role in the economy?

One of the planks of his five-part plan to revive the economy is to make sure people have the skills to succeed. It’s almost as if he believes that there’s more to an individual’s success than just personal initiative—that public spending can actually open the doors of opportunity, rather than dependency. What a revelation!

Even more surprising: Romney now represents the party of compromise and collaborative governance. That was the message he wanted voters to take from the health-care reform he helped create in Massachusetts. It was a masterful deflection of the uncomfortable fact that Obamacare has its origins in Romney’s plan.

Obama fumbles his most potent weapon

The most startling and revealing exchange of the evening involved Medicare. Obama dutifully pointed out that Romney wants to privatize it, i.e., turn it into a voucher program that would gut Medicare as we know it. The idea is deeply unpopular, and in theory, Obama has the upper hand on the issue. It’s hard to criticize a politician for getting too bogged down in facts, given the shallowness of our public discourse—but, well, Obama’s line of attack was way too factual. He focused on the process by which Romney’s plan would gut Medicare, rather than the fact that it would be gutted.

Romney, meantime, actually came off as the great defender of Medicare, claiming at least twice that Obamacare will cut $716 billion from the program, and that he would restore those funds if he’s elected. High-information voters know that the cuts are not targeted to seniors' benefits at all (and instead are aimed at hospital reimbursement rates and private insurance providers), and that Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, proposes the same cuts in his own budget plan. Low-information voters have no clue. But Obama let Romney’s claim pass as fact, unchallenged.

Obama loses the body-language game

Why on earth was Obama looking down for more than half of the debate? Scribbling notes? Reading notecards? Gathering his thoughts?

More to the point: why is this even a question in 2012? There are too many famous incidents of politicians losing a debate, not on substance, but on some flub relating to body language—George H. W. Bush looking at his watch, Al Gore huffing and sighing—for this to happen. And yet, when he wasn’t looking down, Obama was usually looking off into the distance, as if waiting for something to happen out there.

It looked like—and probably was the result of—disdain for Romney. And no matter how deserving of disdain one’s opponent, that never plays well. It’s difficult to believe the famously organized and tightly run Team Obama didn’t drill this into the president from the beginning of their debate prep.

Except for the slight smirk on his face for most of the debate, Romney of course played it perfectly, looking directly at Obama when he wasn’t looking at the moderator. 

As frustrating and (in some ways) baffling as these failures were for Obama’s supporters, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to explain them. The only conspiracy going on was Obama’s complicity in, as George W. Bush used to say, the soft bigotry of low expectations. In the days prior to the debate, he downplayed his own debating skills and played up Romney’s, and tried to win by not stumbling too badly.

Romney, on the other hand, played to win by winning. He made an effective tactical move to middle, trying to win the votes of the “47 percent” that he recently alienated. At the same time, he took advantage of Obama’s defensive, low-expectations strategy and attacked him aggressively, knowing that the response would be muted and professorial.

The outcome was, in a sense, pre-determined. How things will develop from here is anything but.

 

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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