After spending some time reviewing clips from the first presidential debate here is my judgment. If you read the transcripts, Romney still wins by a comfortable margin. For whatever reason, I thought that Obama had narrowly won by that standard just after the debate was over. I was clearly wrong.
If you had listened to the debate without the video, you would likely have concluded that Romney won by a wider margin. I would note, however, that I have heard from a few Republicans who only listened that they thought Obama had won.
For those who both listened and watched, the general judgment has been that it was the most one-sided victory in the history of these things. I certainly agree that Romney was very strong and Obama very weak.
However, I still think the general reaction to the debate is out of proportion to what happened on the Denver stage. Romney was very strong, perhaps as strong as one can hope for in a presidential debate; but he wasn't quite the Hercules that many Republicans now seem to think he was. Obama was weak, but he wasn't nearly as bad as many on the Left seemed to think. In fact, he was about what I expected him to be, given the context. Obama has never been very good on his toes when he had neither a teleprompter nor an adoring crowd before him. If I am right that both sides overreacted, what is the explanation?
Dana Milbank at the WaPo has the best interpretation of what happened to President Obama:
In the hours after the Republican challenger Mitt Romney embarrassed the incumbent in their first meeting, Obama loyalists expressed puzzlement that the incumbent had done badly. But Obama has only himself to blame, because he set himself up for Wednesday's emperor-has-no-clothes moment. For the past four years, he has worked assiduously to avoid being questioned, maintaining a regal detachment from the media and other sources of dissent and skeptical inquiry.
Obama has set a modern record for refusal to be quizzed by the media, taking questions from reporters far less often than Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush. Though his opponent in 2008 promised to take questions from lawmakers like the British prime minister does, Obama has shied from mixing it up with members of Congress, too. And, especially since Rahm Emanuel's departure, Obama is surrounded by a large number of yes men who aren't likely to get in his face.
That is surely the story. Obama has been praised as a great communicator and he has presented himself as someone who could bring both sides together. In fact, he was only good at reading aloud and only looked good as a speaker when the crowd cheered his every word. When he has neither advantage, as in Denver, he is not impressive. Instead of exposing himself to challenging situations over the last four years, he has assiduously avoided them. He likes soft-serve interviews with movie stars and friendly talk show hosts, but has little time for press conferences formal or otherwise. Milbank says that the result of this is that "Obama's argument skills atrophied". It might be more accurate to say that they never had a chance to develop.
This is not merely a political defect; it is a functional defect in a President. "Shying away from mixing it up with members of Congress" has kept Obama from acting effectively as Chief Legislator. He is uncomfortable in a room where he has to argue with people who do not defer to his excellence. It also explains why he failed to do one thing that he genuinely thought he could do: bring the peoples of the world together and restore America's good name abroad. To do that, you have to sit down and reason with folks who do not automatically applaud your every flourish.
It is no surprise that Obama has exposed himself to unscripted press conferences less frequently than Bill Clinton. Clinton was a natural raconteur. That Obama has done so less frequently than Bush 41 or 43 is telling. Those two could barely construct an English sentence but they walked out their nonetheless. Obama stayed mostly in hiding.
Milbank nails the reason that the reaction to Obama's performance was so bad on both the left and the right. He calls the debate "Wednesday's emperor-has-no-clothes moment." He is not the only one to draw on that metaphor. For all of his adult life and especially over the last five years, armies of well-intentioned folks have been telling him that he is wonderful in lieu of actually requiring him to do anything even vaguely impressive. He won the Nobel Peace Prize without having done anything at all for the cause of peace.
Wednesday was the moment that everyone suddenly noticed, many for the first time, that the emperor was not only naked but virtually invisible. The New Yorker cover gets it right. Not only the clothes but the emperor was missing. He is, as I have been arguing, the man who wasn't there.
I am guessing that the moment won't last. I am sure of this, however: if Obama is reelected, it will mean four more years of shielding himself and us from reality.
Brit Hume at Fox Sunday confirmed by view of the debates.
What I would say about this is that this idea that Romney won the debate because Obama basically didn't show up, I don't buy that. The Barack Obama, I heard on that debate stage was the Barack Obama I have been listening to now for four years. He sounded very much like himself. I don't think he was terribly bad. I think he has a very weak case, and I think the circumstances in the country present the challenging candidate with all kinds of opportunities. Mitt Romney was on his game and took advantage of those opportunities.