Come down from the mountain, Mr. President

By David Rohde
October 4, 2012

The Barack Obama of last night’s presidential debate was eerily similar to the man who delivered a muddled acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The incumbent was cautious, tired and on some level – it seemed – turned off by the manipulation of facts that is the ugly heart of politics.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, seemed to relish it. The challenger was fresher, faster and folksier than a sub-par president. Obama seemed startled and frustrated by Romney’s deft shift to the center and audacious effort to portray Obama as the extremist: Obama is a defender of the big banks; Obama is gutting Medicare; Obama funneled $90 billion to fat-cat contributors in the renewable energy industry.

Fact-checking by Reuters and other news organizations shows that Romney glaringly twisted the facts. What was more surprising – and troubling – was Obama’s tepid response.

As in Charlotte, Obama was extraordinarily careful last night. While Romney adopted a wholly new political tack, Obama used the same tired rhetoric, calling for a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, all Americans “playing by the same rules” and Romney favoring “those who are better off.”

I can’t think of a single new policy idea that Obama unveiled last night or in Charlotte. The president and his speechwriters must develop more lucid, pithy ways of describing his policies. That may be distasteful, but it is real.

Romney, on the other hand, dramatically shifted to the center. As Matt Miller of the Washington Post pointed out, Romney and his aides will be lauded as geniuses if he wins. Instead of shifting to the center after securing the nomination, as candidates have for decades, they are dashing to the center in the race’s final weeks.

Whether voters believed Romney or not remains to be seen, but last night he was a Rockefeller Republican moderate who embraced the need for regulation, Social Security and his governorship of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts. All of the hard-right, Tea Party red meat of the primaries vanished. Whatever the veracity of his statements, credit Romney with having a plan last night, taking a risk and executing well.

Obama and his aides may have decided to sit back, hold steady and maintain the presidential high ground. They may have gambled that Romney would make a gaffe, trip up or somehow stumble. Clearly, they lost that wager.

In the end, there is a problem that goes beyond debate tactics. Obama is failing to lay out a clear agenda for his second term. Yes, specificity is the enemy of any politician. But Americans need a reason to vote for Obama, not just a reason to vote against Romney.

I don’t know the true dynamics inside the White House, but from the outside two forces seem to weaken Obama’s presidency: insularity and overconfidence. To the surprise of many, the Obama White House has proved to be as isolated as that of the George W. Bush administration.

In the Obama White House, a small circle of aides plays a central role in all major decisions, according to press accounts. The president rarely engages with outsiders. Since taking office, he has developed few strong relationships with leaders of Congress or foreign heads of state. And like all presidents, he lives in a bubble.

As David Gergen noted after the debate, Obama joined the long line of incumbent presidents who seemed thrown off their game when their opponents bluntly challenged them in their first re-election debate. News stories have euphemistically referred to Obama being “distant” or “aloof.” The president – like all of his predecessors – is reported to have a staggering ego.

Surviving the pressure, brutal criticism and isolation of the presidency clearly requires self-confidence. But both performances created the sense that Obama needs to work harder for this win.

Lastly, David Brooks raised another possibility after Obama’s weak performance in Charlotte. Is the Obama administration, he asked on the PBS NewsHour, intellectually exhausted?

For me, this is the most troubling scenario. Four years of brutal partisan warfare in Washington could leave the administration out of touch and bereft of new ideas.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll find out if that is true. Romney may have inadvertently done the president a favor by publicly humbling him. Obama needs to come down from the mountain, take more risks and be a more daring and deft politician. More aloof calculation could cause voters to send him packing.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama (R) listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate in Denver, October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

 

11 comments

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You would think, that after 223 years of Federal Legislation, there would be put into place undeniable policies that can stand the test of time. All we should be doing now is executing those. How do we still need more laws, new regulations, and different taxes? Maybe the people should wake up and realize that the government “is” the problem. It’s the biggest criminal organization in the world as well as the most vile, pretending to do it all for our own good.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Is that you David with you two feet sticking out of Obama’s ass?

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

“frustrated by Romney’s deft shift to the center and audacious effort to portray Obama as the extremist:”

In other words style is everything and the candidates don’t have to be more that programmable dolls? His “deft shift to the center” suggests that the candidate doesn’t believe a word he says.

I thought that was the case since Reagan. Or maybe it was since Kennedy/Nixon?

The only thing the voters need now for that “feel good” glow of participation is to be able to stick their fingers in a bottle of blue ink.

In a way, I’m glad I wasn’t that interested in politics until I got this computer and started to really read the news and not just listen to it.

@LysanderTucker – What on earth do you think will replace it? “Little house on the Prarie” is being fracked. And there isn’t a single level of government in this country that someone couldn’t complain is too large. Many urban areas have larger budgets and employ more people than some of the smaller countries. Where would you like to start disassembling big government and where would you stop?

Plato figured the ideal Polis was about 10,000. Any municipality in excess of that figure should be illegal?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Disclosure: I am an independent who is voting for President Obama.

As I was watching the debate last night, the following quote from H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) came to mind:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

It was painful to watch the President trying to maintain his professionalism and intellectualism, while struggling
with the “ugly heart of politics.” Romney’s behaviour was rude and disrespectful, not to mention arrogant. Sadly, Obama will have to ‘suit up’ for the next debate, in spite of his ideals and honorable intentions.

Posted by AZAnnie | Report as abusive

Here’s an email I sent to the Commission on Presidential Debates:

To Whom It May Concern:

To many of us in the Denver area the presidential debate last night was an embarrassment to the greater Denver area and to the University of Denver in particular. Jim Lehrer did an absolutely horrible job of moderation. It’s like he left the stage as the so-called debate began. For an institution of higher learning such as the University of Denver Lehrer’s performance was strictly grade school level. Forget the debaters and forget politics for a few minutes and just consider how poorly you folks designed and implemented the debate. We learned nothing!

I, and many others, sure hope you don’t continue this embarrassment in the other cities yet to come.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

Amen,
The man disappointed me after he was elected. He seemed too focused on compromise and allowed the Republicans to humiliate him, obstruct any progress and were public about their intent on obstructing in order to make him a one term president. Obama allowed the Republicans to define him and in the end just left many of his supporters desilusioned. I was hoping the debate would be his opportunity and he went back to his aloof, above the frey attitude and once allowed Romney to define him in this debate.
The only hope i have is that he is holding his fire for the second debate where pointing out Romney’s chameleon appearance will be more effective. If the second debate is going to be a second rehash of his first inept debate, then my question is: if he did not fight during the first term, if he did not fight during the debates, why should i expect that he would fight on his second term, and then i might as well either vote for Romney or then sit out of this election.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

So funny reading the comments on the Obama debate fiasco: it was the moderator; it was Romney’s rudeness, it was Obama’s politeness, it was (from Gore) the altitude.

Everything was mentioned except the most obvious: Obama’s incompetence.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

“The incumbent was cautious, tired and on some level – it seemed – turned off by the manipulation of facts that is the ugly heart of politics. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, seemed to relish it.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t believe that being the better manipulator of facts does not constitute “winning” a debate?

Posted by 4ngry4merican | Report as abusive

@ paintcan

If you have to legislate that a thing is so, it only stands that it never was so in the hearts of men. It is nothing more than forcing some standard, moral or otherwise, on others. Where would I start? Ending legislated monopolies of all kinds, including currency, land, tariff, and patent/copyright. Without these four, there is no power held over any community or body of people. Where would I end? With the idea that if a thing is necessary to be done, it will be done out of necessity. Regardless of, and without need of, taxation or force. Everything else is not necessary.

When you say “Many urban areas have larger budgets and employ more people than some of the smaller countries.”, I read “There is enough concentrated power there to tax, rob and enslave enough people by ‘legislation of gunpoint’ to support a massive group of plunderers who claim to do what they do for everyone else’s own good” These are the most vile of criminals. A mafia who extorts money through threat of death and claims it’s for their own protection.

Like Plato and his 10,000 member Polis, I’ll remind that Thomas Jefferson eventually saw the folly also and wanted to break it all down to Wards of 100 (I believe) people. Not that any larger should be illegal, only that, that idea (illegal) inevitably means that it is already large and powerful enough to declare, and enforce, what is, or is not, “illegal” regardless of the mindset of any given people in any given region.

The point is, if a group of people want something, they will voluntarily support it, or associate in numbers to accomplish it. I have no problem with a governing body, as long as there is no such thing as involuntary financial support of it by threat of gunpoint, or, as we all call it, taxation.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Obama’s vanity and egoism was such he could almost not be bothered to debate. Any reasonable person who watched the debate has to admit Romney is smarter, can think on his feet and is quick. Obama just a plodder, should be teaching law at SUNY.

Posted by Lissandreau | Report as abusive

I think Mr. Obama played it brilliantly, he is ahead in the polls- Let the other guy stick his neck/ass out!

Posted by malnute | Report as abusive