I wish I could disagree with the consensus that Romney routed Obama in the first debate, but I can’t. Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan caught the angst of his fellows during the debate–pointing out in real time how Obama was flat and boring, while Romney managed to misrepresent effectively, all the while sounding like Reagan.
Clearly Obama was playing not to lose. He never was a particularly good debater. He held his own in a seemingly endless series of wonkish debates with Hillary (a smart and diligent public servant, but no great public debater either) and did fine against an aged McCain. But clearly facing Romney, who is genuinely good at this, displayed the weaknesses of Obama’s often rambling, professorial approach. As several commenters noted, Obama looked like someone who hadn’t had to confront aggressive disagreement in the same room in some time. Maybe he should have had that meeting with Netanyahu.
Of course the decision never to bring up Bain Capital, Romney’s Cayman Island accounts, or the 47% remark was made well before last night; the thinking must have been that Obama can remain aloof and above all that, while “the campaign” makes the necessary points. Romney’s big win will probably bring the race back to near toss-up status, where it was for much of the summer. And it puts pressure on Obama to change his approach to the next ones.
In the pending debates at Hofstra and in Boca Raton, a reprise of last night’s “prevent defense” style clearly won’t cut it for Obama. Foreign policy will be featured in both, particularly in the second one. The president would be well advised not to pretend that there is “no daylight’ between the United States and Israel, and to emphasize that Romney has surrounded himself with the same group of geniuses who brought us the Iraq war. With his drone killings and successful targetting of bin Laden, Obama has plenty of toughness to crow about, and he probably should. But Romney is on record as saying that he would essentially place America’s entire Middle East policy under Netanyahu’s domain, and clearly wants a war with Iran. Or, if he doesn’t know whether he does or doesn’t, his advisors certainly do. This puts Romney in conflict with sentiment in the country at large, as well as with the American intelligence and defense establishments. Obama can’t be passive about letting the American people know this. If he is, he will lose.