Obama laid back, Romney reinvented himself, and neither candidate grappled with our economic future.
The debate was painful to watch. The effects are unclear but can’t be good for President Obama. I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t think the presidential campaign has grappled at all with the real issues of our economic future.
There is no point in mincing around this. President Obama was nowhere near his best. He both missed an opportunity to effectively end this campaign and inflicted unexpected damage on himself. At the level of theater and tactics, the president seemed diffident and defensive, while Governor Romney came off as more dynamic and in the moment. While the debate wasn’t close to the layup the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page claimed (but then the odds are high the Journal had that editorial written long long ago), no one should kid themselves about viewers’ opinions: CBS’s poll had Romney winning 46 percent to 22.5 percent, CNN had it 67 percent to 25 percent Romney, and Google 48 percent to 25 percent. But the election prediction markets didn’t change much, and Nate Silver at the election site FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of an Obama win at 86.1 percent.
My own guess is that this debate will in the end be seen as having virtually no effect on the actual presidential election. However, that’s only a guess based on past history – these debates rarely have much effect unless someone makes a horrendous mistake. But the debate will energize the Romney campaign, and it was the last-minute emergency resuscitation of a campaign on the verge of a death spiral. And it has to be said that Romney’s remarkable shifts in position and emphasis resulted in his making a better case for himself than he has come close to making in the past. That ought to worry President Obama’s strategists.
Turning now to those Obama strategists, another effect of this debate ought to be to energize them. Their public stance will necessarily combine whistling by the graveyard with denial. That cannot be their actual private conclusions. This campaign will go to the end, and President Obama has to have a better narrative than he had last night.
There were several aspects of the debate I didn’t understand. First, why did the president appear so laid back? If the actual strategy was Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy in the "Rumble in the Jungle,” it was the wrong strategy. You cannot possibly decide in the first week of October during a presidential election that playing not to lose is a good idea.
Second, how or why did Mitt Romney get away with such a fundamental restatement of positions he has taken throughout this whole campaign? As one major example, Governor Romney put forward a while ago a tax reduction plan that has been widely criticized as making no arithmetic sense. He flatly denied any such plan at least twice during the debate. But Marty Feldstein wrote an entire op-ed piece defending “Mitt Romney’s plan” published in the Journal on September 28. I disagreed with important aspects of Professor Feldstein’s article, but he is a friend, a major figure in economics in America, and not given to writing long pieces defending imaginary policies. I cannot understand why the president did not forcefully observe that we were all watching Etch-a-Sketch in action.
Finally, why didn’t President Obama have a simple, straightforward economic narrative and story? Debates of this kind are won through clear and compelling stories, not through the recitation of program detail and statistics no one remembers.
As a final thought, neither this debate nor this campaign have come to grips with the future. This doesn’t surprise me: campaigns are rarely about issues and choices anyway. They are more often managed by political consultants and strategists precisely to avoid issues and choices. And so, at the end of this interminable campaign on November 7, the voters will have no clue what comes next. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.