"It's a drag," Barack Obama said earlier this week about his debate prep. "They're making me do my homework." This foreshadowed his lackluster debate performance on Wednesday night. He seemed disengaged and defensive. He didn't look at his watch, à la George Bush Sr., but he was probably doodling (under the guise of taking copious notes) as an energetic Mitt Romney offered a detailed brief against his failed presidency.
Romney conveyed the command of a hands-on CEO while Obama looked like a tired demagogue. His summation was pathetic, dribbling out some sort of promise about equal effort in a second term. In other words, he offers more of the same. Romney came up with a good phrase for his stale liberalism: “trickle-down government."
Nothing seemed to work for Obama: not his lame jokes about Donald Trump (why would he attempt humor at a debate where the audience is sworn to muteness?), not his rote and insincere flashing of his Cheshire Cat grin, not his recitation of small-ball, long discredited government programs. Occasionally he would look up at the camera and address the television audience directly, which is probably an easier mode for him. Demagoguery is his reflexive posture and he tried mightily to scare seniors and stir up hatred of the rich.
But it all seems so exhausted. The canned lines and themes from 2008 haven't changed a bit. Obama is still rattling on about evil "oil companies" and people who don't "pay their fair share." In 2008, Joe Biden said that the rich, who carry a huge percentage of the tax burden, lacked patriotism for resisting Obama's redistributionist plans. This is still their claim. Obama called acceptance of his socialism "economic patriotism" at the debate.
Much of the debate was wonkish and Romney seemed in his element, relishing the chance to out-wonk a retail pol who prefers the trappings of the presidency to its policy rigors. Romney's answers were thorough, fluid, and detailed, rebutting many of Obama's distortions effectively.
He threw in Obama's face his boneheaded "green energy" investments. Quoting a friend, Romney noted sardonically that Obama isn't even in the business of picking "winners and losers." Judging by the Solyndras, he is just in the business of "picking losers." Obama pretended to take notes while receiving such drubbings. (Romney, by contrast, didn't bother with the charade of taking notes when not speaking and just gave Obama bemused looks.)
Obama was straining to present himself as the at-ease presidential incumbent. But his acting couldn't prevent annoyance from registering on his face from time to time, and he snapped at Jim Lehrer once for stepping on "five seconds" of one of his answers.
The back-and-forth probably struck a lot of Americans as boring and insiderish. It wasn't exactly a debate of big ideas, more like bickering over policy differences and partisan characterizations. But this probably worked to Romney's advantage. He delivered his talking points with more gusto than Obama. Romney laid down a good test for the existence of federal government programs: Is it so critical that we need to borrow money from China to pay for it? And he didn't pander to Jim Lehrer while using this test: Romney told him that he would zero out “PBS" for that reason. PBS didn't fare very well all around: Obama later attacked Exxon Mobil as a greedy oil company of no redeeming value. Doesn't Obama at least appreciate its longtime support for Masterpiece Theatre?
Obama seemed a bit testy and less polished than usual, using inelegant phrases like “autistic kid." Strangely enough, Romney appeared more relaxed. It is probably good that Lehrer instructed the crowd to remain silent. That's an easier, less demagogic, atmosphere for Romney to navigate. Romney lived up to his credentials as an expert consultant who learns every possible detail about the company he seeks to jumpstart. In this case, the company is America and judging by at least this debate performance he looks far more eager to run it than the president.