Nervy, halting, distant, and bureaucratic. This wasn't Obama's night

  • @guyadams

Barack Obama called it “a terrific debate” in his closing statement last night. But he’d be hard pressed to find any Democrats who agree.

I watched proceedings at a Los Angeles bar, where local Democrats had organised a “watch party.” For most of the ninety minutes, they sat in stony silence. For them, it was that bad.

The President had prepared for his big showdown at a resort near Las Vegas, and he performed like a man suffering from a Sin City hangover: nervy, halting, and somehow distant. In the opening exchanges, he barely cracked a smile; still less a joke. His monologues were flat, and larded with endless, wonky detail. At times, he sounded almost bored.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, bounded out of the traps. His shirt seemed whiter, his tie sharper, and his hair, improbably, less grey than his opponent’s. Even the Republican candidate’s Stars-and-Stripes lapel badge was bigger. The differences in body language were striking. When Obama spoke, Romney looked him in the eye. When the boot was on the other foot, the President stared at his hands.

Romney made the most convincing play for Middle American hearts and minds. He spoke of being “father to five children,” dropped warm campaign-trail anecdotes, and spoke zealously of the nation’s economic woes being a “moral issue.”  For a candidate who often seems out of touch, he did an awfully good job of connecting.

Obama has always been a better orator than debator. And last night, it showed. At the lectern, he seemed  bureaucratic. For most of the 90 minutes, he played defence, ignoring seemingly-obvious lines of attack. Though two-thirds of the debate majored on tax, he never mentioned Romney’s toxic “47 percent” comments, or Bain Capital, or his opponent’s Swiss Bank Account.

The strategy was presumably to seem Presidential; to stay above the fray. But the immediate verdict was damning: CNN viewers adjudged Romney the winner by a 75-25 percent margin. A CBS panel of uncommitted voters picked Mitt by 46-22 percent (the rest called it a tie). On Betfair, where Romney’s odds of victory recently touched 5/1, they narrowed to 5/2.

Obama remains the bookie’s favourite, of course. And his more philosophical supporters will be quick to argue that sitting Presidents often win elections handily after losing debates. But after weeks of apparent plain sailing, even his most loyal supporters will have realised that they now have a fight on their hands.