Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post says, "I'm still shaking my head," over why President Barack Obama didn't bring up Mitt Romney's '47 percent' comment at the debate; Charles Krauthammer says he thinks Obama didn't mention it because he's "sitting on a lead, lazily and smugly." Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod suggested it was because the president wanted to focus on middle-class issues; Al Gore says it was because of the altitude; a woman in the grocery store blamed the president's wedding anniversary. Nope.
Put yourself in Barack Obama's shoes for a moment. Here he was onstage, listening to Romney's stunning indictment of his record over the last four years and his "trickle-down government": Twenty-three million unemployed, 43 months of unemployment at 8 percent or higher, a record 46 million Americans on food stamps. Romney called Obama's trillion dollar deficits for four years "morally wrong," which they are. Then Romney explained his proposals for getting the economy moving again—from tax reform to small business creation to healthcare—in commonsense language that persuaded millions of undecided voters that he's a pair of safe hands on the wheel.
Then the president watched as Romney's debate performance eviscerated the millions of dollars the Obama campaign has spent on negative ads portraying Romney as a heartless, extremist, lying scoundrel who enjoys firing workers and giving their wives cancer. Once 60 million-plus viewers saw Romney as a passionate, smart, honest, decent, charming man—which was pretty clear from the first 10 minutes, on—President Obama knew he had a problem. Not only did the man across the stage from him disprove months and months' worth of negative spots, Obama knew that now those ads won't work in the final four weeks, either. He was watching as both his own record and his campaign's ad strategy were crumbling around him. No wonder he didn't look up.
So why didn't Obama bring up the '47 percent'? Because Barack Obama saw that Romney would clearly have a very good three-point answer for it, as Romney did for everything else, right out of the box. Anyone who's seen that secret video knows Romney's comments were taken out of context—that he was making a clumsy political point about his lower-the-federal-income-tax-rates message not selling with a crowd that doesn't pay federal income taxes. Romney went too far with his remarks, but Obama knows there was a Shirley Sherrod aspect to the secret tape. Any lawyer knows that when you've got a good point already made in front of a jury, you let it stand—you don't allow the other side to put it in context and explain it away. With his law degree, Obama knew better than to give Romney that chance in front of the jury. And he knew that Romney, having a law degree too, would take it—he'd jump at the chance to explain his remarks for the first time in front of 60 million viewers. Obama's no dummy. So he kept his mouth shut.
The day after the debate, Romney's apology for those remarks made the headlines—which proves that he had an apology and an explanation ready to go the night before but never had the opportunity to use it. Romney's next-day apology also proves that Obama wasn't as distant, rusty, and unsure of himself as some thought: He knew exactly what was going on, saw exactly how devastating it all was for his campaign and his advertising strategy, and knew enough to salvage the best weapon he had—the '47 percent' comment—by not bringing it up. The last thing the Obama campaign needed at that point was for Romney to put what he said in context and apologize for it, in front of the biggest debate audience in decades. Obama knew exactly what he was doing.