No question about it. President Barack Obama seemed subdued last night. He held back.
But why? Why let Mitt Romney go on the offensive, tout grand new programs, and eviscerate the President’s record?
Assuming Obama’s a smart person - which seems beyond question - there must have been something that cowed him into relative silence, platitudes, and an inexplicably all-positive-all-the-time theme.
What was it? Here are the top five possibilities, culminating with the one I believe is most likely:
1. He wasn’t prepared. Romney squirreled himself away in Vermont and practiced like a Harvard-bound kid whose grade point average depended on the final exam. And, like lots of smart, high-achieving kids, the Governor produced. Obama, on the other hand, thought: “Pish tosh! I’m in the lead. I’ve got this thing in the bag. Forget studying, dude. I’m coasting."
2. Debates don’t matter. Obama and his advisors looked back at 50 years of debates and found that almost none turned the race around. The match-up between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter - so often mentioned by Republicans - likely did not owe its turnaround to the debate. As Democratic strategist Bob Beckel noted last night, "having been involved with President Carter's campaign that year, I can assure you the stage had already been set for a Reagan victory."
3. Who is this guy? Romney came at Obama with the long knives out. And the carving and filleting was artful. Take this shot from Romney near the beginning:
Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed. Middle- income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a -- this is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing.
At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up. Health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed.
That necessitates a comeback. I waited 90 minutes. Nothing came.
Was it because the President - like all presidents - lives in a bubble? In which everyone agrees with him? As historian Jon Meacham noted today, it's likely that no one has spoken to the President at any point in the last four years with the same sort of irreverence that Romney did.
4. Whose policies are these? To be fair to Obama, the Romney who showed up last night felt remarkably centrist - compared to the one who appeared in the 47% video, who moved from Massachusetts to the Tea Party, who proclaimed himself a "severe conservative." The Governor knew the game had shifted to the center of the field; just about 10% of centrist voters are in play, and reaching out to them is his final mission. Last night, Romney was all about empathy, supporting health care and Medicare, helping the middle class, and making inroads with suburban voters in Virginia and Ohio.
5. Don’t attack. Just don’t attack. Getting angry, Obama knew, would be out of character for him. He’s a cool guy. Blue, not red. Icy, not hot. He may have worried that too much engagement could lead to disaster - a flash of outrage that could turn him into the same kind of rough-and-tumble politician as everyone else. Rather than the man who told us there was no red America or blue America - just the United States of America.
In addition, as New York Magazine’s John Heilman has noted, Obama has, privately, “a lot of contempt for Romney,” and not letting that show through may have felt like a paramount goal.
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