Is President Overconfident? (He Shouldn’t Be.)

We want to put down a few first impressions about last night’s first presidential debate before we look at what anyone else has said.

Mitt Romney performed with more energy and desire to win than did President Obama. Romney dissembled, evaded, distorted, and denied truths, as we would expect, but he showed admirable aggressiveness—fire in the belly. He cavalierly blew through the time limits like a rich glutton who feels entitled to eat all the food in a restaurant just because he can afford it all, and to hell with the other customers. But he was there to win, and, setting aside accuracy, honesty, and specificity, maybe he deserved to (last night—not on November 6!).

Skipping many opportunities to attack Romney, the president acted as though he’s above going on the offensive. He failed to point out Romney’s dismal job-creation record as governor of Massachusetts and his impressive job-destruction record at Bain Capital. Unbelievably, Obama neglected to charge that a candidate who has written off 47 percent of the American public cannot care too much about creating jobs and improving opportunities for the American people. The president was far too slow to bring up the name Paul Ryan, who embodies the harshness of G.O.P. budget priorities—a huge missed opportunity. He never once mentioned the 100% obstruction of the Republicans in Congress, not even when Romney faulted him for pushing through a health care reform bill that had no G.O.P. support. How could Obama not say this? When they talked about the budget and taxes, he was too courteous to mention that super-rich Romney has hidden his own tax payments from the public (and possibly from the U.S. Treasury) like no candidate in recent memory.

We sure hope President Obama doesn’t think he’s got this election in the bag, after seeing all the favorable polls in recent weeks.

Obama did a fair job of drawing distinctions between his policies and his opponent’s, just as Romney was adept at blurring distinctions and telling the general public what they want to hear, regardless of what would please his hard-line conservative Tea Party base. But Did Obama really say that he and Mitt Romney have many views in common on Social Security? This had better not be the case, Mr. President. Don’t come in with that attitude (again) in negotiations with Congress about ways to reduce the federal deficit. You gave far too much away in your negotiations with the G.O.P. last July.

We’ve long admired Jim Lehrer, but should he really be America’s Moderator when he is too soft and polite to enforce the rules and time limits, or to hold the contestants to account for evasions and distortions? He could have faxed in the questions. Maybe the Presidential Debates Commission should hire someone tougher like Karen Lewis, the no-nonsense head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, or a New York City cop or a New Orleans bus driver.

But, more than Lehrer, we fault the president for not defending the time rules more firmly, and instead flashing his pretty teeth when “there he goes again” Romney bullied his way back into the discussion. Points for Romney, demerits for Obama on Will to Win.

Obama is an eloquent orator, as the world well knows, but he is too passive and “reasonable” a debater. We saw this in 2008, and he hasn’t had much practice since. He courts the independents, the moderate middle, and hesitates to hit hard with “lefty” jabs. Harry Truman was not above being feisty and combative when running for reelection; had he not been aggressive, there would have been no re-election in 1948.

Will someone in the Democratic party please teach this president how to use a switchblade? (Howard Dean? Alan Grayson?) He’ll need it after he wins re-election. And he may need it before then.


Further reading on the debate:

Daily Kos: Abbreviated Pundit Round-up: The post-debate debate

Talking Points Memo: Romney Shines in Denver, Obama Camp Says So What

Political Animal/Washington Monthly: Mitt Gets Away with It—For Now • The Audacity of Mendacity • and Why Last Night’s Debate Was a Replay of the First Bush/Gore 2000 Debate

The New Yorker: Seven Chances Obama Missed and After Denver: Can Obama Bounce Back?

The Nation: In a Debate Between Romney and Romney, Obama Was the Spectator

Illustration from The Nation.