Frankly, I thought Mitt Romney won the debate in the first 30 seconds when President Obama opened with the usual maudlin reference to his wife and their wedding anniversary. (I've been invited to this party every time I open the New York Times website in the last three months.)
So Romney immediately responded, "Congratulations, but you're going to have to spend your anniversary here with me!"
Wow, did he really say that to the President? It was a complete wakeup, just as disarming as Ronald Reagan's famous, "There you go again." It sent an immediate message: Romney wasn't going to be intimidated or paralyzed by the President's lachrymose self-indulgences, nor was this debate going to be a polite volley of memorized talking points. Romney was already off the cuff and ready to play. And play he did.
Alright, Romney won the debate, hands down. Even Huffington Post was willing to admit "Romney Wins the Night" 20 minutes after the debate ended. CNN did a begrudging "Romney Sets a Winning Tone" and of course there were the public meltdowns of the obsequious Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan. There is plenty of reason to celebrate.
But all these are just first-day responses. What is far more important is how the press will regroup and continue to create the mythical Best President Ever while throwing up a smokescreen between Mitt Romney and the voting public. Give them a day or so and they'll recover. According to London's Daily Mail, David Axelrod has specifically asked reporters to start making the debating points that Obama was unable to muster during the evening.
What the first Presidential debate revealed is that President Obama is basically an empty suit. By retaining his enigmatic calm, the President has enabled the press to project any and all of their fantasies upon him. Obama is the smartest President ever. He has accomplished more than Roosevelt. He's as charismatic as John F. Kennedy. If he has trouble with particulars, it is only because he is thinking of higher things. When Chris Matthews told the President he could recover his mojo by watching MSNBC, he wasn't kidding. The subtext, of course, is: "We're the ones who made you who you are."
Obama is a grown-up college Marxist. He probably hasn't changed his perspective much since he was an undergraduate. What he has mastered is the academic trope of pretending to entertain all different points of view before settling on the one furthest to the left. He is a pure product of academia. All the President's famous faux pas -- the rural folk seeking consolation in "guns and religion," the small business owners who "didn't build that" -- are the routine scuttlebutt of faculty lounges.
There is nothing more frustrating to a junior professor who scored 700s on his SATs and spent seven years earning his Ph.D. than the moment when he goes back to his 15th high school reunion and discovers that the dumb kid who used to sit in the back of the class drawing pictures of jet airplanes on his forearm in indelible ink has become a successful builder and is riding around town in a Porsche. "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there." I wonder who we're talking about there?
So the question remains, if the press has essentially created Obama, can they rescue him now that the blank slate upon which they have been drawing has been shattered? Well, they can certainly try and they definitely will.
Just to get a taste of what to expect, consider this. I just searched "You Didn't Build That" on Google News. Here's what you get from the last three days:
"Romney's 'You Didn't Build That' Attack: An Epic Failure." (Washington Post)
"Poll: Didn't Build That Message a Dud" (Politico)
"Surprise! Obama's 'You didn't build that' statement didn't hurt him at all with voters!" (Suburban Life)
"The You Didn't Build That Flap" (Minneapolis Star)
"Obama Regrets 'Syntax' of 'You Didn't Build That' Remark. (ABC News)
"Poll: 'You Didn't Build That' Quote Didn't Actually Hurt Obama, but '47%' Hurt Romney" (Slate)
"Mitt Didn't Build That" (Huffington Post)
"Does Obama Really Believe You Didn't Build Your Business?" (Inc.)
"Romney's '47 percent' Gaffe Hurts More Than Obama's 'You Didn't Build That'" (Business Insider)
"Obama Raps About 'You Didn't Build That' MC Hammer-style" (Slate)
I'm not picking and choosing here. These are the top ten hits. Outside back issues of The Wall Street Journal and a few other conservative publications, it is impossible to find anything in the press suggesting that there might have been something a little regrettable about the President's remarks.
So the press is primed and ready for damage control. The question is, do they have enough material to work with? I would suggest the job may prove tougher than they anticipate.
Let's take Romney's successful line of attack that the $90 billion Obama has spent on "green energy" projects could have hired two million teachers. Solyndra came up, of course, but Romney also mentioned a couple of others dubious investments, including the Fisker and Tesla, two electric sports cars. At the end he remarked, "I think half of them have gone out of business."
The last comment is obviously incorrect. Although there have been several highly visible failures, most of the $90 billion has gone to projects such as weatherizing homes or cleaning up nuclear test sites. So half of them obviously haven't gone under.
Within hours, however, mainstream media outlets were challenging the overall argument. Here's a sampling from the first day:
"A Closer Look at Obama's '$90 Billion for green jobs.'" Brad Plumer, Washington Post.
"$90 Billion for Green Energy? A Closer Look." Matt Wald, New York Times. (No collaboration there.)
"Romney Campaign Explains Fuzzy Green Math." Andrew Restuccia, Politico.
"Romney Decides That Thriving Electric-Car Startup Tesla Is a 'Loser' Will Oremus, Slate.
"Fact Check: Are half of 'green' energy firms helped by stimulus out of business?" CNN staff.
"Romney zinger: Obama backs 'green' energy losers. Is he right?" Laurent Belsie, Christian Science Monitor.
"Romney tries to Solyndraize Tesla Motors, calling it a 'loser.'" David Herron, Torque News. (Yes, the liberal tilt in the media goes right down to the level of Torque News.)
David Axelrod's appeal is obviously not falling on deaf ears. Just for good measure, the Hill published a gloating report that "polls show the majority of voters are unfamiliar with Solyndra."
So maybe with a little help from the press Obama can fight back on the matter of green subsidies? Well, I'd be careful. There are treacherous waters here.
Take the Tesla, the supposed green energy success story. The Tesla is a luxury sports car whose cheapest model sells for $50,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit. Other models go for as high as $84,000. How is Obama going to look when he starts defending that investment? Or how about the Fisker, which was actually manufactured in Finland and sold its first imported model to Leonardo DiCaprio before the company gave up on a production plant in Delaware? Fisker got a $529 million loan guarantee from the federal government, only $6 million less than Solyndra. The Fisker sells for $102,000. How's that going to stack up when the President starts talking about "tax benefits for the rich"?
Frankly, I think there's only one thing that Romney hasn't done yet in the debate. At some point he should look voters in the eye and say, "I solemnly promise that if elected President I will not blame anything that happens during my administration on my predecessor standing right here. On that you have my word."
Let's see the press try to punch its way out of that one.