Why it’s all about Obama

October 16th, 2012



This piece was originally featured on Reuters.

President Barack Obama may have lost the first debate the minute he appeared on stage in Denver. Just by showing up, he changed the terms of the campaign. Viewers immediately saw the election as a referendum on the president. The decision became whether to fire him or rehire him.

This was bound to happen sooner or later.  It always happens when an incumbent is running for reelection.  Until the Oct. 3 debate, Democrats had made a vigorous, and mostly successful, effort to turn the election into a choice rather than a referendum: Which guy do you like better — Obama or Mitt Romney?

Democrats managed to demonize Romney as a rich guy totally out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.  Romney made it easier for them by constantly calling attention to his wealth.  Democrats went after Romney’s business record, his flip-flops and his efforts to pander to the extreme right.  It was working.  Last month, Romney had the most negative public image of any presidential candidate in at least 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Democrats have to rally the base in order to win. The Democratic base includes a lot of voters who don’t usually turn out in large numbers — minorities, young people, recent immigrants. Many feel disappointed and frustrated with Obama. One way to rally the base is to drive up fear of the alternative: If Romney becomes president, he will shred the social safety net and kill Big Bird.

The Democratic strategy was working. Until the first debate. Once Obama stepped onto that stage,  the election was about him.

Two things happened in the debate to sharpen the focus on the president. First, Romney came across as a plausible alternative. His performance was smooth and professional. He sounded like a moderate. He controlled the terms of the debate, and that re-enforced his image as a leader. Second, Romney made Obama’s record the central issue: “You’ve been president four years!  You said you’d cut the deficit in half. We still have trillion-dollar deficits!”

Obama didn’t show any fight that night. His defense of his record was half-hearted — at best. He failed to launch a full-throated assault on Romney’s ideas, many of which are either deceptive or delusional.

Far from rallying the Democratic base, Obama demoralized it. A week later in the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden showed how these things are done. Biden dominated the debate against Rep. Paul Ryan and made the Romney-Ryan agenda the central issue. Can Obama meet the standard set by his own vice president?

Everyone expects to see a tougher, more aggressive Obama in Tuesday’s debate. But there are two problems. One, Obama’s temperament is not that of an attack dog. He’s more of an inspirational figure and a conciliator.

Second, this debate is a town hall. The questions will be asked by an audience of undecided voters. Undecided voters, by definition, are not partisans. They don’t like a lot of fighting.

The audience in the room may fit Obama’s temperament. He can patiently explain to them how he goes about solving problems. But it may not work with the far more partisan TV audience that’s looking for a fighter. If the vice presidential debate had been held in front of an audience of undecided voters, Biden might have gotten booed. If Romney is as aggressive  Tuesday night as he was in the first debate, he’s the one who runs the risk of getting booed.

Republicans like to think 2012 is a repeat of 1980.  In 1980, Jimmy Carter was running for reelection as an utterly discredited president.  But many voters were frightened of Ronald Reagan.  Reagan used the one debate with Carter, held a week before Election Day, to reassure voters that he wasn’t a monster and wouldn’t start a war or throw old people out in the snow.

Reagan instead turned the election into a referendum on the incumbent: “Ask yourself this question: are you better off than you were four years ago?”

If 2012 is a referendum on the incumbent, does that mean Obama is doomed? Not necessarily. Obama is no Carter — despite the best efforts of Republicans to turn him into Carter. Economic confidence is rebounding. Republicans can’t turn the Libya issue into another Iranian hostage crisis. And even though many Americans are disappointed in Obama, they still like him.

A referendum on Obama will end up being close. But the president still has a fighting chance to win. The operative word is “fighting.” If Obama wants to rouse his Democratic troops, he’s going to have to show more fight.

Just not so much that he gets booed.