Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?

There has been plenty of speculation about the reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance in his first debate with Mitt Romney, but one thing is clear: Barack didn’t bring it.

MR. CONFIDENT VS. MR. SNIPPY: After last night’s first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, many of President Obama’s most ardent supporters are wondering why he allowed Gov. Mitt Romney to administer such an unequivocal beat down. (Photo: Newscom)

It’s been interesting today, reading and listening to all the post-debate analysis. Following what most are agreeing was an unequivocal beat down of President Obama by Mitt Romney, many are wondering, What just happened? With all of the polls leading up to the debate favoring the Obama campaign, one would think the president would’ve ridden that momentum and brought the fight to Gov. Romney.

But President Obama apparently neglected to take his urgency pills before taking the stage in Denver last night. Romney, say most pundits, was the more confident, aggressive, and prepared candidate. He won the evening.

And President Obama?

Well, let’s just say the only “hope and change” his supporters are feeling after last night’s performance is the hope that he will change his approach for the final two debates.

As you might expect, there’s a ton of postmortem chatter spilling out across the Web and blogosphere. One report at Politico, titled “How Obama’s Debate Strategy Bombed,” dissects the possible reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance:

Multiple party strategists privately attributed Obama’s demeanor to an ailment that frequently affects incumbents: a fear of appearing too aggressive and risking a larger-scale misstep that could transform the campaign. Projecting a calm, reasonable — some said “presidential” — demeanor was the strategy during Obama’s debate-prep sessions outside of Las Vegas.

But as a result, Obama allowed Romney to set the terms for much of their Wednesday night faceoff at the University of Denver. Startling his supporters, Obama did not deliver almost any of the sharpest attacks that have defined his campaign against Romney, dwelling instead on missing details from Romney’s policy proposals. The former Massachusetts governor’s private-equity background, controversial personal finances, views on social issues and recently reported comments, disparaging Americans who do not pay income taxes, went entirely unmentioned.

At AlterNet, commentator Lynn Parramore defended Obama’s approach:

Obama did what anybody paying close attention would have known he would do. He played it safe. And he stuck to a rather dull rhetorical style because — he has a rather dull rhetorical style. Also because that’s what you do when you’re the frontrunner. You don’t say or do anything wild and crazy. You let your opponent jump up and down and make excitable noises. Which is precisely what Romney did. Some have read Romney’s stance as aggressive, others as pushy, but there’s one word that you’re unlikely to hear: “presidential.” Makes for good theatrics. But it won’t win you the White House.

But Chicago Public Media blogger Achy Obejas, usually an Obama supporter, is having none of that. She admonished Obama’s constituency with this:

Obama people, stop pretending. Stop trying to find the silver lining. Drop the crap about how Mitt Romney was a condescending jerk and vague on everything. Yeah, Romney was all that. And you know what? He still spanked Barack Obama in Wednesday night’s debate. Romney was smooth, easy going, clear, ended his sentences on actual periods and just kept jabbing at the president all night long.

Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta doesn’t let Obama off the hook for his “snippy,” “downbeat” performance, but she goes deeper in diagnosing the root cause for the president’s poor showing. She writes, “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.” She goes on to add that folks expecting a late-hour reemergence of the dynamic Obama of 2008 needs to awake from their denial. This Obama, she says, is no longer the new and shiny model from 2008, nor will he ever be again. She says:

Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.

His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.

As for the president, earlier today at a Denver rally he explained the previous evening’s less-than-triumphant proceedings by suggesting Romney caught him off guard. “When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. [But] the man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions … from the last year.” Mocking Romney’s smiling declaration that he would cut funding to PBS, Obama added, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”

I’m sure Obama’s supporters are glad that he’s able to find humor in last night’s ugly affair, but one wonders why he didn’t bring some of that snark last night.

After sifting through these and other commentaries, I got into a brief email chat with UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist, who also was puzzled by the president’s flat performance. Here’s a bit of our discussion:

ED: What the heck happened last night?

WIL: President Obama was so flat with his style points during the debate, that I’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s a plan. He’s either: 1) Working a “rope-a-dope” strategy where he’ll knock Romney out later when it really counts, or  2) He was thinking too much about candlelight dinner with Michelle for their 20th wedding anniversary.

ED: My wife said the same thing about the Obamas’ anniversary, but c’mon. The president’s whole life is spent multitasking — balancing the running of the country with the mundane tasks of telling the kids to do their homework and making sure he remembers the card and flowers for the anniversary. So, I can’t buy that one. But the rope-a-dope idea has merit. I’ve got to believe he was intentionally pulling punches last night. He seems to be working some sort of strategy, but did it possibly backfire? It’s awfully close to Election Day to be taking those types of calculated risks.

WIL: If Obama’s doing the rope-a-dope strategy, his aim is to strike fear in his Democratic base so that they’ll realize this election won’t be a cakewalk by any means. Democrats became lax in the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party-led GOP dominated. So the implicit message to the base is probably “Wake up, stand up, and get out the vote, like you did in 2008! Romney-Ryan is a stronger ticket than McCain-Palin. I need your help!”

ED: So, do you see him rebounding in round two, or is this the Obama we get now?

WIL: I think Obama will drop all of the obvious power punches (47 percent, flip-flopper, etc.) on Romney in the next two debates, but he will still need a strong voter turnout to win. On the other hand, if the Prez was distracted last night and thinking about Michele … well, as a married guy I can’t blame him. However, Michelle will always be his first lady. If he’s not careful, she won’t be ours much longer.

Much more will be said about last night between now and the next debate. And once the new round of poll numbers starts appearing, the pundits will have even more fodder with which to fill their cable news segments. But, if nothing else, last night’s debate should remind us of one thing: nothing is decided until the polls close on the evening of Nov. 6.

About the author, Edward Gilbreath

Edward Gilbreath is editor of and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity.
  1. It would be nice if these two presidential candidates could work together for a balance. I must say these politicians war so much their parties are becoming gangs fighting to run the territories of North America.

    Regardless of who wins the presidential election we still need more U.S. citizens in this country to step up and out of these american pipe dreams and take critical initiatives in their own families and communities. I urge my fellow adults that we are charged to commit to such a great cause for all children.

    If you a building contractor cap your american dream, be a man, be a leader and not just a follower and get out and teach another man how to be a carpenter exp. We all must work together for this common goal of rising above evil through Christ only. We scream leadership, but don’t want to be the one to set the example because we don’t see a promise of financial growth in it. People dissing Mr. Mitt Romney because his financial status, and what he do with his money when every american seek to be financially stable and if their is an financial opportunity is willing to advance for their own individual reasons. Come on now, we all try to cut cost financially. I been out of the country I’ve seen how the american dollar doubles and triples. Don’t be quick to hang a man for something you would consider if you was in the position to make it happen and know its ending result.

    No matter who wins the presidency you are still the parents of your children, and what goes on in your home and your community will always be your responsibility, and if you don’t care about being active in your community, at-least be concerned and support those who do. Go look outside, even in the hood children are being children and still playing in the streets. We Americans need God to touch us. We tough as along as it doesn’t affect us right?

    I say before, during and after let myself and everyone vote for one of these men but first be still, and continue to vote for the true governing power of the entire universe, God! Lets keep praying for our leaders of all kinds, elders of the church, husbands, presidents, cops, the trash man, everyone is a leader because he is someones husband, father, brother, our country-man. What we all do is a message to someone who is looking at us and or up to us. So let us always elect Christ daily as the supreme no matter who our president is. It is imperative we go the extra mile for the children.

    • I urge us all to vote for one of these men, but don’t vote our responsibility into another man’s hands. We know what our family needs, we know what our community needs, and we know what our country need. You mean to tell me if the country don’t give you help you gone let your family starve? If you don’t get hired you gone give up? No man who loves his life and the life of his family would even consider this an option.

      Regardless if we get the right president for the cause or not we are all men, of all colors, from all backgrounds, with all kinds of God given gifts, under one God and one flag. The president is still one man, but together we are many. I encourage the one who reads my words with the conviction to self-examine himself to search his own heart, and seek Gods. Be blessed my fellow Americans, because who could be worse.

  2. First, I’m just glad someone is admitting that Obama did poorly. That might seem condescending, but I mean it sincerely. People seem unable–and I mean that literally-to view him objectively, or even reasonably. So a huge thank you for being honest.

    Second, in my opinion, he seemed irritated pretty much the whole way through. Like he was annoyed that he even has to endure a debate. I mean, he’s the President for goodness’ sake. I also agree with you that he doesn’t earn any sympathy points because he’s the incumbent and running the country right now. Again, he is the President for goodness’ sake. But the most telling thing I’ve found about all the post-debate analysis is that generally speaking, in the Black community and online spaces, there’s very little discussion of the substance of the debate. Romney made some very strong arguments and put some valid points out there which Obama did not address satisfactorily. And I think he challenged Obama’s priorities in a way that makes some people think…what exactly has Obama done that has really truly worked? For example, the point about insurance costs going up for families as a result of Obamacare when the President said they would in fact go down. There was no direct response to that, other than to say, it’ll get better. We have to acknowledge that Obama is developing a serious credibility issue. But as long as we insist on upholding him and being in denial about who he really is, what he’s really done and how effective-or not-he’s really been, we won’t see his weaknesses. And I think the Black community is doing him a serious disservice by not conceding his flaws and areas where he simply hasn’t gotten the job done. Some Blacks have wondered why he hasn’t seemed to directly engage us as a constituency during his presidency. Why should he? Everything he does is alright with us. Other groups challenge him on his failure to adequately address their issues and he responds. To us, he said, ‘stop whining’ and ‘I’m everybody’s president, not just yours.’ And for the most part, we accepted that. We need to face the fact that it’s very unlikely that we will ever again be taken very seriously as a voting bloc because although we made all kinds of demands on previous presidents and at least made an effort to get a piece of the political pie, we have done no such thing with this president. So now, why should anyone think that their benign neglect of the Black community will result in any serious political fallout?

    Yes, Obama did a poor job during the first debate. But he has not done a stellar job as president. And we need to be honest with ourselves and with him about that.

  3. Thank you so much Chandra for insightful passages. Black people in particular are blinded by Obama where there could be no critique at all.

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  5. I always had said before Obama became president,he would be blamed for the shape United States has gotten in.People need to know the truth,changing president after president is not going to fix the 48 years United States is in the hole.And for who ever vote for Romney,must be rich.I can not believe folks will vote for someone who cares nothing about them.And to point the finger at Obama;Congress only allows him so much lead way.Myself? just as Romney do not care for us less fortunate,I could care less for his stink greedy ways.God will have the last say.What will you say when he ask you,how did you treat HIS people?

  6. I am sick and tired of people making everything a black and white issue.Get over skin tone and concentrate on what is important,we need each other and we need to stand together.What do you suppose heaven is like? If you think it’s a color seperation think twice.And please do ask yourself,how long have The United States been in the hole?

  7. To whom it may concern,I am sick of folks trying to speak for all black people.Really you need to check yourself.You and no one else can speak for all people no matter the race.And if you had any knowledge,you would know exactly how and why United States is in such a bind.Don’t act like the real truth does not exsist.

  8. If we continue our reckless spending (having studied Economics I and II at a Christian College) I would say that give us 4 more years and we will be totally bankrupt. Neither party can solve this mess. But we are headed for chaos with the current financial woes; we need to only protect freedom in the world; we do not need to give money to Brazil to drill for oil, and cap our wells at home-hello!