DENVER—President Obama didn’t have many good moments in this week’s first presidential debate. But it was telling that the few came when he was raising objections to Mitt Romney’s tax, spending, and Medicare plans. The president had much less to say about his own ideas for the next four years.
In that way, the debate spotlighted the biggest hole in Obama’s reelection effort: the paucity of specifics he has offered about his second-term agenda. To a remarkable extent for an incumbent, Obama and his team have redirected this campaign into a referendum on the challenger—a reversal of roles that Romney has facilitated with a monthlong series of gaffes and missteps. (Until Wednesday night, pretty much nothing good had happened for Romney since the minute Clint Eastwood inexplicably lugged that chair onstage on the final evening of the Republican convention.)
But the 90-minute expanse of Wednesday night’s debate proved too long a stretch for Obama to keep the focus on Romney. And when the spotlight shifted back to the president—either his record or his plans—he often seemed diffuse, if not listless. As one undecided woman in a Las Vegas focus group of “Walmart moms” put it, the president seemed “defeated, a little bit.”
The debate is unlikely to solve all of Romney’s problems. He still faces a strong perception, especially in battleground states bombarded by Obama’s advertising, that he favors the rich over the middle class; that perception particularly appears to have taken root in Ohio, a state that Romney almost certainly needs to win. And although this debate didn’t highlight any of the issues that have caused the problems, Romney’s weakness among Hispanics and socially liberal upscale white women still requires him to win a dauntingly (though not impossibly) large percentage of all other white voters to overtake the president.
But the debate did two very important things for the challenger. First, it arrested the rush to judgment in much of the political community that Obama had effectively sealed the race. “This is exactly what Romney needed to stop everybody from declaring this race, and they were on the verge of it,” noted Floyd Ciruli, an independent Colorado pollster.
Second, the evening delivered a powerful reminder of Obama’s inherent vulnerabilities. All of Romney’s difficulties in recent weeks have provided ample testimony to his own challenges. But they have obscured the parallel reality that Obama is seeking reelection with elevated unemployment rates, low levels of growth, a massive federal deficit, and an approval rating that, while getting better, rarely peeks above 50 percent. This debate ensures that the campaign discussion, after weeks of being focused on Romney’s troubles, will now also highlight Obama’s weaknesses, and that itself is an important victory for Romney.
One of those vulnerabilities is Obama’s inability so far to enlighten voters about his second-term agenda. To the extent the president outlined goals during the debate, they were largely defensive. He wants to restore the tax rates for upper-income earners established under President Clinton, protect Medicare and Medicaid in their current form—and, above all, implement his health care plan. He didn’t talk nearly as much about what he might do in a second term to accelerate job growth. “You didn’t hear anything about how he is going to get the economy going,” jibed Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, after the debate. Other than blocking the GOP’s initiatives, Obama didn’t seem to be burning to accomplish much of anything over the next four years.
Romney didn’t display unbridled confidence in his ability to sell his agenda, either. The challenger was more forthcoming than Obama about his plans, but he also made a series of questionable assertions about his proposals—in particular, when he again declared he could cut tax rates by 20 percent without reducing taxes on the rich, increasing the deficit, or raising taxes on the middle class. Independent analysts disagree. Romney also promised bipartisanship while effectively precluding it by unequivocally rejecting more taxes in any budget deal. In that way, he gave Obama some postdebate openings to counterpunch. But that was the modest extent of the comfort for the president’s campaign after such a sluggish performance.
It’s not unprecedented for incumbents to stumble in their first debate: Think Ronald Reagan in 1984, George W. Bush in 2004, or, in a slightly different way, Al Gore in 2000. Presidents aren’t accustomed to someone pressing them as forcefully as a challenger does. By the time the two men meet again on Oct. 16, Obama will surely be more aggressive in making a case against Romney. But even if the president makes a more effective argument against his opponent, he will still face the challenge of convincing Americans that he has a plan to make their lives better.
At times in the past two months, it seemed that Obama might be able to make it through Nov. 6 without having to get over that basic hurdle. After this week’s debate, that looks much less likely.
This column originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of the magazine as Where's the Beef?
This article appears in the October 6, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.