Presidential elections are not decided on who—according to style points, clever lines, and well-executed attacks—wins a debate. And that's good for President Barack Obama, who let Mitt Romney walk all over him in Wednesday night's debate.
It was so obvious, one has to wonder: Was it part of a deliberate approach by the Obama campaign?
The president made no mention of some of Romney's most vulnerable points—the "47 percent" comments, Bain Capital, the former governor's own low tax burden. Even more astonishing, Obama let Romney make a misleading attack on Obama's $716 billion in "cuts" to Medicare, mentioning—though not clearly or forcefully enough—that they are not cuts (since Medicare spending will continue to go up). He also failed to emphasize strongly enough that the slowdown in growth affects providers and not beneficiaries, and that, most importantly, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's plan includes the same $716 billion in cuts. The difference is, Ryan's cuts would not help to close the "doughnut hole" in Medicare Prescription D drug coverage, and Obama's does. Even some of Obama's better jabs were not delivered with the force they warranted. He had a good line about Donald Trump being considered a "small business" under Romney's math, and thus eligible for a tax cut. Why he didn't go one step further—saying, "Donald Trump does not need a tax cut, and quite frankly, governor, neither do you"—is baffling. Obama treated the event as though each man was making his case to the academic department heads, defending a dissertation, instead of making a case to the public.
Was he simply not prepared for this kind of debate? Surely he had to know Romney would be aggressive—a little too aggressive, at times, interrupting the moderator and sounding like he'd had a lot of caffeine—and go for broke. But it was such a stark difference, one wonders if it was on purpose.
Presidents have to be careful, sometimes, dropping to the same attack level as their challengers. It makes them look as though they are on the same level, instead of one of them being in charge of the country. There's something to be said about looking presidential. And in Obama's case, he has the added complication of not looking angry—being the angry black man in politics is far more loaded than being the angry white guy. And much of Obama's appeal is in his basic likability, not a small thing in an election. Al Gore may have "beaten" George W. Bush on debate points when the two men faced off, but all that sighing and smarty-pants demeanor made Bush the more appealing choice.
Despite Romney's superior performance in the debate, Obama is still not the one on the defensive in this campaign—Romney is. And Obama, perhaps, was determined not to look like he was on the defensive during the debate.
It's not that the Obama campaign does not have these effective attack lines—the ads on China "cheating" and Romney's characterization of the "47 percent" are very powerful and effective. Obama may not have wanted to look on the defensive during the debate. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't have done a better job at defending himself.