Mitt Romney, as was clear to all who watched the first presidential debate, channeled Ronald Reagan right down to the glistening hair and respectful smiling face that listened as his opponent tap-danced and stutter-stepped his way to a resounding thumping in the contest.
Several post-debate polls for varying news organizations such as CNN and Newsmax showed that the voters who watched the debate viewed President Obama’s lackluster performance as a clear victory for Gov. Romney. So clear, in fact, as to outdistance the margin of perceived victory measured in most past presidential debates where same night post-debate surveys were conducted.
Most supporters of Obama will write this off to a one night off performance by their man. But a deeper examination of what took place would suggest that the president has, in many ways, created a deep hole from which he must now climb in the next two contests.
What has not been mentioned enough is the fact that this first debate was actually an introductory event for Mitt Romney. Most Americans did not watch the endless Republican primary debates earlier in the year. As a result, the image they had of Romney had been formed by brief moments from stories from the evening news or from some late night comedian. This was Mitt Romney’s opportunity to introduce himself to most voters on his own terms.
And because President Obama has avoided long press conferences or other opportunities to speak extemporaneously, many voters who have seen him on cozy shows such as “The View,” or in very structured interviews, such as his recent appearance on “60 Minutes,” are having a hard time reconciling the Obama they thought they knew with the one who debated Romney in Denver.
Certainly the president will come out swinging in the next contest, and in coming days many a comparison will be made to Ronald Reagan’s weak performance in his first debate against Walter Mondale during his 1984 re-elction bid. Reagan seemed weak and at times confused and came back to clobber Mondale in the next debate. But there is a big difference here.
First, Reagan was already known as the great communicator, and no one had ever suggested that he could only speak without the help of a teleprompter. When Reagan “bounced back” in his second debate, there was a high level of past performance to which he returned. No such record exists for President Obama. He bested John McCain in 2008, but McCain was himself a weak debater who often was lost in the same high weeds of policy and insider type talk that we heard from Obama in the Denver contest.
Reagan had no long term history of stuttering, grasping for words or uttering “uh” or “look” every few sentences while trying to respond to questions or make a point. To be honest, these stylistic problems that Obama highlighted in the first debate have been his hallmark throughout his presidency — it is simply a matter of no one ever calling him out over them.
But Obama’s debate problem runs deeper than a matter of his style and manner of delivering a message. In the first debate, he embraced several terms and pushed several concepts that could become deadly in a final contest where domestic policy can once again dominate the contest.
First, he chose to proudly adopt the term “Obamacare” as one that from now on will be considered a non-confrontational term. If Romney plays it right, Obama’s decision might be tantamount to Herbert Hoover having proudly claimed ownership of the oh-so-nasty reference to the shanties and homeless hovels referred to in his days as “Hoovervilles.” Obama now owns the term for better or worse.
More importantly, Obama has left open a huge door through which Romney may walk, should he so choose. By making a big issue out of the lack of specificity to Romney’s proposals, such as cuts to future budgets, Obama is wide open to a last minute laundry list of specifics from Romney in the final debate. That would leave President Obama grasping at challenges to the proposals and with only days to come back with attacks. A basic rule in debate — never let your opponent be vague and fill in all of the blanks late in the contest.
Given that President Obama’s greatest problems are currently in an area most Americans don’t follow, foreign policy, Romney has a sporting chance of taking two debates in a row. If that happens, the emperor may have no clothes, and once the public notices, the polling numbers may start to truly move toward Romney.