In the Arena

Obama’s Debate Strategy: Unilateral Disarmament?

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Michael Reynolds / Pool / Getty Images

President Obama listens during the first presidential debate, at the University of Denver on Oct. 3, 2012

Well, I’m with all the other talking heads: Mitt Romney won this debate. Barack Obama lost it. I mean, he got his butt kicked. It was, in fact, one of the most inept performances I’ve ever seen by a sitting President. Romney — giving credit where it’s due — was calm, clear, convincing (even when he was totally full of it) and nearly human. The real mystery was Obama. Where on earth was he? Why was his debate strategy unilateral disarmament? Why did he never speak in plain English? “Mitt, you’re selling a fantasy. Bill Clinton proved it. He raised taxes on the wealthy and the economy boomed. George Bush lowered taxes drastically and the economy tanked. How’s your plan any different than Bush’s?” Actually, the President did say something like that, but it was well past most of America’s bedtime, about an hour into the debate — and he didn’t do it clearly, concisely or directly.

It gets worse.

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You may have noticed that the President never mentioned his most important achievement in the most crucial states: the auto bailout. He never said, “That $716 billion in Medicare savings you keep harping on? That was in Paul Ryan’s Republican budget — you know, Mitt, the one that passed the House because all the Republicans voted for it.” Romney was even able to imply that he may not have such a good accountant when it comes to taking advantage of sending companies overseas without the President saying, “I think you have a terrific accountant, Mitt! Great tax rate!”

You may also have noticed that when Romney deftly compared the $2.8 billion in oil subsidies to the President’s $90 billion in green energy, Obama didn’t have a response. This was truly remarkable. He didn’t talk about the world’s largest sun and wind farms. He didn’t talk about the failed energy investments that Romney had made. My colleague Michael Grunwald spent nearly 500 convincing pages in his book The New New Deal describing the accomplishments of the stimulus package, and the President couldn’t even defend it.

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Obama’s cool was ice cold. It was 30 minutes into the debate, by my count, before he mentioned an actual human being. Romney was talking about people who were “crushed” and “buried” — pace Joe Biden — and “hurting” in his very first answer. Romney managed to wax poetic about the pursuit of happiness, meaning that government should help everyone find the American Dream, without the President saying, “Even that 47% you said you don’t care about?” How could he go through an entire debate without mentioning or even hinting at that 47% remark?

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So we now have a race. I don’t know whether this debate will move the polls very much — it may well — but it will certainly boost Romney’s confidence, and it has to give the President some doubts, despite his vaunted self-confidence. I must say that I’ll sleep better knowing Romney opposes banks that are too big to fail (although he didn’t say how) and will regulate Wall Street, eliminate most tax deductions for the wealthy (he put a clever $25,000 or $50,000 cap on deductions) and force insurance companies to cover those with pre-existing conditions (even though he would turn over health policy to the states — how on earth did Obama fail to pick up on that one?).

But I must admit, once again, to being mystified. Did the President send out his body double to this debate? Because if that were the actual Barack Obama out there, I’m not sure he could communicate well enough to be an effective President in a time of trouble, to say nothing of winning a second term.

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