Barack Obama’s performance in the first U.S. presidential debate was bad—and it only got worse in the days that followed. Pundits kept one-upping each other in describing just how detached he had been. The President was lethargic! He was invisible! He wasn’t just aloof—he was theloof!
They weren’t exaggerating: Obama’s interventions in the first debate featured more ums than the periodic table. In the days leading up to this week’s second debate, the President’s surrogates promised a more vigorous, more aggressive Obama. A few made it sound as though Mitt Romney would basically be facing off against a giant green rage monster and his terse campaign slogan: “Hope smash!”
So it was a bit of a letdown when the President declined to begin Tuesday’s debate by striding across the stage and ripping off Romney’s arms. Instead, it was the standard fake-friendly handshake and we were ready to go.
This was a town-hall debate and those are the worst because they oblige politicians to feign not only interest in but also empathy for the struggles of average people. This fools no one: one handshake in 1992 and 20 years later George H.W. Bush is still trying to get the smell of mill worker off him. Worse yet, the candidates have to try to remember everyone’s name. Was it Lorraine? Lori? Gloria? Oh, it was Dave. Sorry, Dave.
The format was especially tough on Romney, who struggled to find common ground with the average folk. One can only imagine debate prep in the Romney camp:
Aide: Governor, what’s the price of a gallon of milk?
Aide: Well, we’re getting closer.
Obama was so plainly determined to come across as spirited that the normally staid town hall format led within 20 minutes to the two candidates standing toe to toe and on the verge of a fistfight over, of all things, whether the amount of oil being extracted on public lands has decreased by 14 per cent. If you missed it, here’s essentially how it went down:
Obama: You’re a dummy.
Romney: No, you’re a dummy.
The President was also more vigorous in taking credit for stuff. An hour into the debate, you’d have sworn that Obama alone was responsible for saving the U.S. economy, the auto industry, the entire middle class, Medicare, Harrison Ford’s wife in Frantic and the last dance for me.
And did you know Osama bin Laden had passed away? Obama mentioned that once or twice (twice). He even managed to shoehorn it into his answer to a question from a man who was lamenting that things sure are expensive these days. Clearly, at this point there’s really no line of conversation into which Obama can’t squeeze that factoid.
Michelle: Barack, honey, could you help with the girls’ homework?
Barack: Killed bin Laden. [Continues watching Wheel of Fortune.]
There were odd moments during the debate. Mitt Romney fought for like 20 minutes with the moderator to get a chance to say something—something he URGENTLY needed to say—and when she finally gave in he declared, “I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa.” Um, okay.
Later, Romney revealed that his solution to Americans killing numerous other Americans with semi-automatic weapons is not to ban or limit semi-automatic weapons but to make sure more people get married. Because apparently nothing stops you from gunning down strangers quite like having to be home for supper by 5:30.
But it was Romney’s answer on pay equity that was especially memorable. It began with Mitt bragging about how as Massachusetts governor he ordered up “binders full of women” when selecting his cabinet (I too amassed binders full of women as a younger man, but for a different reason). He then boasted about how he let his employees with lady parts work flexible hours so they could hustle out to the suburbs to cook dinner. The whole thing gave off a vibe of, “I am totally sealing the deal to win the 1956 presidential election.”
Yet questions remain unanswered. Where is Mitt Romney’s binder of women today? And would he consider publishing it so that all American men can find within its pages a woman who will work for 73 cents on the dollar and scurry home to whip up a meatloaf. I’m asking for a friend (Don Draper).