Call it the curse of incumbency. Like many of his predecessors, President Obama fell victim Wednesday night to high expectations, a short fuse, and a hungry challenger.
If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn't win the first of three presidential debates outright, he more than covered the spread. He was personable, funny, and relentlessly on the attack against a heavily favored Obama.
The president looked peeved and flat as he carried a conversation, for the first time in four years, with somebody telling him he’s wrong.
(TRUE OR FALSE: Fact Checking the Debate)
“Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today,” Romney said, stealing the mantle of change Obama wore so well in 2008.
The former Massachusetts governor also reminded voters repeatedly that the president has not lived up to promises he made four years ago. After Obama vowed to reduce the deficit in a second term, Romney replied, "You've been president four years."
"You said you'd cut the deficit in half. It's now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits," he said. Time is up was the message for voters.
The mood among Democratic commentators and political professionals shifted instantly from optimism to alarm, even anger, over Obama's performance. "Romney won the debate, and we better come loaded for bear next time," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis told National Journal. "In the next two debates, the President needs to take the fight to Romney or he will lose this fight. It's that simple."
MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews asked, “Where was Obama tonight?”
A leading Democratic public opinion firm, GQR Digital, concluded after a focus group of voters in Denver that Romney performed well, improving his personal appeal. "However," they wrote, "the research does not suggest that Romney fundamentally changed the political calculus in this election."
To be fair, the deck was stacked against Obama, who came into the debate with a lead over Romney plus the baggage of incumbency.
First, voters expect sitting presidents to win debates and, indeed, polls showed that Obama was favored Wednesday. That benefits a challenger like Romney who grows in stature simply by standing next to the president.
(RELATED: On Economy, Romney Blurs Contrast With Obama)
Second, challengers have more time to prepare than do busy presidents. Romney was ready. Finally, incumbents aren’t used to being challenged. Obama’s thin skin showed more than his Hollywood smile.
The curse of incumbency struck George W. Bush in 2004, when John Kerry beat him in debates. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was caught impatiently glancing at his watch in 1992. Jimmy Carter fell victim to the low expectations set for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Romney helped himself by looking directly at Obama when he answered questions. Obama looked at moderator Jim Lehrer, which on screen made it appear like he was speaking to the ground.
Romney smiled and cracked jokes (“I like Big Bird!”). Obama smirked.
But that was theater. When it came to the facts, Romney grossly oversimplified his own platform, presenting himself as a Medicare-loving, regulation-supporting candidate who does not in fact want to cut taxes. It was a clear if not factual parry of Obama.
Still, in politics, optics matter.
Obama didn’t hurt himself with an obvious gaffe. And it’s impossible to predict how the debate will be digested by voters in the next several days as both campaigns put their spin on it; Obama might retain his slight lead in polls.
But it would be hard to argue that Obama achieved his primary debate goal: Describe what he would do in a second term with clear and positive details. Obama did make a forceful plea on behalf of his credibility, answering voters who might doubt his word after falling short of his lofty first-term promises.
“Four years ago I said I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president. That is probably a promise Governor Romney thinks I kept,” Obama said. “I promised I would fight every single day on behalf of the American people. I have kept that promise. If you vote for me, I promise I will fight just as hard in the second term.”
Tactically, the president found little time to hit his rival’s softest spots – Romney’s wealth, Medicare policies, and ham-handed dismissal of 47 percent of the public.
He was at his best early in the debate when he linked Romney to the policies of former president George W. Bush, challenging voters to decide whether they want to “double-down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess? Or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best?”
But even then, Obama was looking back and not ahead. And he looked bitter.
CORRECTION: A version of this story incorrectly reported the year of the Bush-Kerry race. It was 2004.
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