opinion by Scott Shackelford
Scott Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
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Every media personality I’ve heard talking about the Oct. 5 presidential debate – from MSNBC to Fox News, from the traditional networks to PBS, and even including statewide bloggers – seem sure that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won, and President Barack Obama lost.
The reasoning of all those pundits as to why the president lost, both in terms of style and the specific policies discussed, does seem sound. I just happen to believe (call it intuition, or quite possibly wishful thinking) that President Obama was off playing a different game.
It was readily apparent that a combative and effusive Romney was prepared to defend his campaign proposals (even if that meant repeatedly interrupting moderator Jim Lehrer, and even if Romney’s economic policies still lack much, if any, detail) and attack the president’s record while not turning combative with his verbal jousts.
Romney did exactly what he had to do: Even if his theories about not raising taxes while slashing the federal budget sound a lot less troublesome than such a path surely would be, he looked and sounded like the president’s equal for the duration of the debate.
Romney more than held his own on the same stage with a president who has at times been referred to as the best orator in Oval Office history. That in itself is a major accomplishment for a candidate who only one month ago had a difficult time selling himself to the country during his own party’s weakly orchestrated convention.
For all the criticisms of the president’s supposedly lackluster effort, I’m still not sure his debate performance in Denver was all that surprising. Sure, there’s the old excuse (and there’s probably more truth to it than we realize) that presidents nearing the end of their first term in office aren’t used to being challenged in a debate setting after four years of staffers telling them everything they say and do is exceptional and wise.
The president did at times hold an expression on his face revealing his loathing of GOP’s demands, and his belief that Romney is an empty suit temperamentally ill-suited to the job for which he is applying. Except Obama didn’t say anything like that. He looked down at the podium and wrote notes (doodled perhaps?) and held on to the bitter end.
Apparently the president’s campaign team is banking on the idea that Romney remains too far behind President Obama in the polling from several key swing states (Ohio, chief among them) and that at this late date only a fatal verbal slip-up by the president can put this election in play, regardless of what on-air pundits might suggest.
Perhaps, pundits have said, President Obama is comfortable turning in a couple lame, lackluster debate performances – effectively taking a knee to run out the clock at the end of the game – to prevent Romney from any opportunity to tie the president in the polls before November. This is as good a theory as any for the president’s weak performance. Why else would the president decline to hammer Romney for certain, much-maligned remarks or gleefully champion the successes of his first term, including the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, extending health insurance to millions of Americans previously without it, and the decision to launch a mission resulting in the death of Osama bin Laden.
Instead, viewers found themselves critiquing President indifferent.
Maybe that’s because the math says he’s already won. Or maybe a little arrogance did seep through, which would be a problem, a play in desperate need of deletion before the next debate.
But I think the president didn’t have the bad debate everyone else saw. I just think he was playing at a different level than Romney.
Remember 2008, when then U.S. Sen. Obama promised the public that, if elected, he would be a president who rose above the partisan infighting that voters past and present claim to be sick of? Maybe that’s the Obama we saw Oct. 3; perhaps it was the reappearance of a candidate who believes the presidential thing to do when being attacked with hammy one-liners and weak policy proposals that literally don’t add up is to respond by being calm and measured. Presidential, if you will.
Unfortunately, calm and measured doesn’t always play in a media culture that celebrates snappy sound bites and controversy. Romney spoke up. He drilled points home with short, direct sentences, almost always put forth a smile, and whenever possible, personalized his rambling responses – all of which generally made the president seem icy by comparison.
I still think the national media is missing the point. I don’t think President Obama wants to play the same style game that pundits are demanding. I think he wants to be reelected being seen, by observers both here and abroad, as the only realist at the table.
When he said four years ago that he wanted to change the culture of Washington by doing away with partisanship and animosity for your opponent, I believe he meant it. I know he believes in his policies; I think the rest of it – the show business side of the presidential debates and of politics in general – is something Obama has a much tougher time getting his thoughts and arms around.
It will be interesting to see how much President Obama embraces style over substance when he and Romney meet for their second debate on Oct. 16. Maybe a lot.
Maybe – if polls suggesting a comfortable lead for the president in those critical swing states hold up – not much at all.