Could Obama's complacency cost him the election?

Other incumbents have done badly - not all recovered

What happened? How was a President of such uplifting image and such a way with words given such a drubbing by a man reckoned by even his own supporters to be a poor campaigner, especially when it came to connecting with ordinary people?

Yet by near unanimous consent, precisely that happened on Wednesday night in Denver. Barack Obama was listless and lacklustre, unwilling for whatever reason to take the battle to Mitt Romney. Maybe he considered it un-presidential. Maybe he simply wasn't in the mood.

He made no howlers to be sure, in a contest notably short of memorable lines. But he let Mr Romney, in debating terms, get away with murder. He didn't press him on specifics. He didn't mention the famous 47 per cent of Americans who, his opponent said, consider themselves "victims". He didn't mention Bain Capital, 14 per cent tax rates, Cayman Islands investments or the other "B-Word", as in George W Bush. Mr Obama delivered a rambling lecture. "Let's talk about taxes because I think it's instructive…," he droned at one point. Mr Romney was often mendacious, but pithier and more pointed.

There are precedents for this dismal showing by an incumbent. An ageing Ronald Reagan badly fumbled his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984 (though he made up for it in the second, promising he would not "take advantage of my opponent's youth and inexperience.").

Eight years later, George H. W. Bush finished a distant third in his first debate with Bill Clinton and the independent candidate Ross Perot, who was generally adjudged the winner.

Then in 2004, Bush Jnr was well beaten – not only in the first, but in all three of their debates – by his Democratic opponent John Kerry (who played Mr Romney in Mr Obama's practice debates; evidently not that brilliantly.)

One common factor was lack of practice. Like any president, Mr Obama has spent his last four years giving speeches, holding rallies and generally having people jump at his every command. But the stage in Denver featured no re-assuring presidential seal, reminding Mr Romney and all America who was boss. On Wednesday evening, Mr Romney was an equal, and gave at least as good as he got. "Probably no-one's talked to [Mr Obama] like that since he won the White House," one observer noted.

Mr Obama was also a victim of the expectations game – not that he could have done much about that, given how Mr Romney had been written off in advance after his gaffes and sliding poll ratings. As the former Massachusetts governor showed during the primary campaign, he can be a decent debater. But by Wednesday the assumption was that Mr Obama would deliver a knockout blow. Pre-debate polls showed two thirds of Americans expected the President to win.

And that in turn may have bred complacency; that all he needed to do was show up. The President "wanted to have a conversation", said James Carville, a key operative in Bill Clinton's winning team in 1992. But "it takes two people to have a conversation. Mitt Romney came in with a chainsaw." Coming from one of the most ruthless Democratic chain-saw wielders of recent times, that was praise indeed for the Republican.

More worryingly perhaps for his supporters, Mr Obama's limp performance fitted into a pattern. He is prisoner of his reputation as an inspirational orator. In fact, his manner is that of the professor, the careful observer, the lucid synthesizer, driven by logic rather than passion. The danger though is that detachment becomes drift.

And it's happened before during his presidency. On occasions during the health care wars he was oddly passive, allowing a disputatious Congress to dictate events. Just before the Democrats' mid-term debacle, some party officials privately wondered whether Mr Obama's stomach was still in the fight, whether he even wanted a second term.

But he did – and there's every reason to expect he'll fight back now. Anyone who watched him defeat Hillary Clinton in their epic 2008 primary battle (or has seen him play pick-up basketball) knows how competitive he is.

Two more debates lie ahead and it would be amazing if Mr Obama passed up so many opportunities to score points. And as John Kerry proved, winning debates is no guarantee of winning election. But the prospect of an Obama walkover is no more. As David Gergen, CNN analyst and veteran of Republican and Democratic White Houses, put it: "We've got a horse race."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Boxer Amir Khan will travel to Pakistan in bid to 'make a difference' in the wake of army school massacre
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridgeface-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture