The First Debate: Was He Ill?

I had high hopes for last night’s first presidential debate and the signals it would send for a second Obama term that looked more assured every day. I was looking for signs that the president had learned from his “Why can’t we all just get along?” bipartisan failure, and come out swinging.

He’d use his gift of eloquence to truly take full advantage of the bully pulpit the debate format provided. He’d confront Mitt Romney over his chameleon conversion to Tea Party extremism. He’d ask him about Bain Capital and the policy it represents of sending U.S. jobs overseas and sheltering money in the Cayman Islands. Mr. Obama would ask for clarification about the governor’s “47%” gaffe and the signal it sent to Middle Americans.

He’d call Republicans on their lies and for being the “Party of “No,'” and for thwarting his valiant efforts at bipartisanship. He’d ask Mr. Romney why they’ve filibustered specific programs that would help Main Street and  war veterans

He’d have a clear narrative of exactly how deregulation, tax cuts, and Republican disregard for deficits have gotten the country into its present mess. He’d tell a story of American healthcare as clearly as Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” Naming the fundamental deceit of the phrase “clean coal,” he’d make a clear and unambiguous case for green energy to protect the environment from corporate predators. He’d force his opponent to explain his party’s denial of the reality and threat of global warming.

President Obama’s victory in the first debate would once and for all set a tone for (what before last night) seemed to be the likelihood of a second Obama presidential term.

But none of that happened.

Instead the president allowed Governor Romney to appear more presidential than he did. Romney looked Obama in the eye throughout the entire debate. Meanwhile, the president constantly looked down at his notes or at the debate moderator Jim Lehrer. When he did face his opponent, it was fleetingly– almost as if he didn’t belong on the same stage with the man.

And the president talked too much — a full four minutes and change more than Governor Romney. But the extra time was counter-productive. He seemed hesitant and lacking in confidence. He was rambling, unfocused, often incoherent and general. He had to apologize to Mr. Lehrer more than once for exceeding his time limit. For his part, Romney seemed confident and crisp. He had the “facts”at his fingertips ticking off points and itemizing them in groups of fives and threes. He gave the impression that he was the man with a plan, while the president was constantly on the defensive.

And there was no forceful challenge to Romney’s discredited “trickle down” narrative. Obama actually allowed Romney without counter-comment about public ownership of the airwaves to call for the end of Public Broadcasting and to twice denigrate “green energy.” It was Romney who faulted Obama for not being entitled to his own facts. And all of that without any clear response from the incumbent.

It all made me wonder if Mr. Obama was well — or if he had seriously prepared for the debate.

For the first time, I’m thinking we may have to get used to the phrase “President Romney.” Help!