Most observers here are saying President Barack Obama lost the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, and perhaps they are right. The Republican nominee was eager to make his case before millions of television viewers. He was polite, witty, sympathetic to the plight of the middle class, and in command of the format. More importantly, he looked like a human being.
The president, on the other hand, was wonky and dry, more Explainer-in-Chief than Commander-in-Chief. He let Romney push him into a corner. He was on his heels. He didn't fight back. And he didn't use an arsenal of counterattacks available to him, like, "How can you stand there and tell the American people that you care about them when we know how you feel about 47 per cent of them." Predictably, this drove liberals, Democrats, and admirers crazy.
As The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter, said:
[T]his was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.
Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment [my italics].
James Carville, who was President Bill Clinton's adviser, said on CNN:
I had one overwhelming impression [that] it looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. ... I think he wanted to be there. I think he knew he needed this, and I think Obama gave the sense he wasn’t happy to be at this debate.
Matt Bai, a reporter for The New York Times, suggested that perhaps the president expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the job of being president.
Mr. Obama’s goal, it seems, was to indicate his continued willingness to serve in a job he believes he can do better than the other guy, but that doesn’t really seem to enervate or enliven him. That’s a problem, and not only for the duration of the campaign.
Yet much of this is surely overblown. If Obama did lose the debate, it's in part because the commentariat tells us he did, and much of the commentariat is telling us he did because, I suspect, it's applying the normative values of "American Idol" contestants to the ambiguities of presidential candidates.
That's why we are hearing so much about how Romney looked like he really wanted to be there, how confident he appeared and ready to be in charge. Obama, on the other hand, didn't appear to have anything to prove. He didn't want it enough. Meanwhile, the pundits forget Obama is the incumbent, and by nature of being the incumbent, he doesn't have anything to prove. It's the challenger's burden to prove the president is no longer fit to serve.
Still, when seasoned liberals start panicking, you worry. Bob Moser, of The American Prospect, wondered which Obama will show up next time, and what he will do when Romney hurls salvos of equivocation and mendacity.
The question for the remaining debates is no longer the one people were asking prior to Denver: 'Which Romney will show up?' It’s which Obama will show up—the half-asleep one who declined to debate on Wednesday night, or the jolted-awake one who so effectively hammered his opponent’s dishonesty half a day too late?
But here's the thing: What if the real Obama was there? Think about it. What if the president was setting a trap for Romney? It's not as odd as it sounds.
First, the real effect of this debate, as with any debate, probably won't be felt for another few days during which time pollsters will attempt to measure public opinion. Meanwhile, the punditocracy will cycle and recycle the debate until no one remembers what happened, only what it says happened.
While there will be time spent wondering why the president wasn't more assertive, and time spent speculating on how Romney's "win" will give him a bounce in the polls, that will fade, and eventually the substance of the debate will come to the fore, and that's where the president has set a trap.
Romney's fundamental liability, among many cosmetic liabilities, has been that he lies. A lot. Steve Benen, who blogs for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, has attempted to document them all (a heroic effort), but Romney's reputation as a dissembler has not yet risen to the level of national consciousness. With 58 million people watching the debate, however, that may soon change.
The president did appear to be on the defensive, but like a counter-punching boxer, that may have been to his advantage. I don't mean to make Obama seem cleverer than need be here, but he was able to do in 90 minutes what many journalist have failed to do since Romney began running: pin him down. And knowing that he was being pinned down, Romney did what he does. He lied.
What happened? Obama told the truth.
Romney's budget proposal includes tax cuts for the rich, tax hikes for the middle class. I won't go into the details, but that's right. It has been known for months, and many say the effects of the plan would be a campaign-killer if the effects of the plan were well known. So guess what was Romney's reaction was? Nope, nuh-uh. I don't support a $5trn tax cut, no tax hike on the middle class.
So Big Lie No. 1.
Second, Obama said Romney wants to repeal Obamacare but doesn't say what he will replace it with. Romney said his plan will prevent private insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of so-called preexisting conditions, as Obamacare does. That's true except for being entirely false.
Romney has said anyone who already has insurance will enjoy health care protection under his proposal. As for everyone else, his senior adviser told Talking Points Memo that the Romney replacement plan will actually leave that up to states. In other words, Romney has no plan to protect the sick from discrimination unless they already have insurance, which is already the law.
So Big Lie No. 2.
Remember, the president is the incumbent. The burden of proof is on the Republican nominee's shoulders, and for all the talk about his victory, no one is saying that he made a convincing case that the president's time is up.
Conversely, all Obama has to do to win is cast doubt on Romney. He continued to portray himself as the most reasonable man in the room, above the fray, and deeply concerned about the health and welfare of ordinary Americans. At the same time, he made one solid point. That Romney isn't on the level.
Romney says he'll repeal Obamacare, but doesn't say what he'll replace it with. He says he'll cut taxes by 20 per cent, but doesn't say how he'll pay for it. Over the next few days, as the commentariat chews on the debate, all the talk about posture, eye contact and poor moderating will dissipate, but what will rise to the top is that Romney lied about two of the major concerns of the day.
All of this combined may cast an enormous shadow of doubt over the Romney campaign. If voters are doubtful, they may choose to stick with Obama.
By remaining cool and likeable, and by speaking the plain truth, Obama might have given Romney just enough rope to hang himself with. Time will tell of course, but time is the very thing that's on the president's side.