In hindsight, the first five minutes of last night’s Barack Obama–Mitt Romney debate was a microcosm of the painful 90 minutes to come: Jim Lehrer explaining that the audience had been instructed not to applaud or cheer lest the proceedings feel as if they had any life to them. Obama and Romney arriving onstage in their party-appropriate ties. Obama opening by referring to himself as “the luckiest man in the world” for being married to Michelle Obama, a line that was a lot sweeter before it had been said verbatim so many times in public. Obama promising Michelle a better anniversary next year, all but jinxing this one to be awful. Obama giving an oblique opening statement. Romney, making a good-natured joke about Obama’s anniversary, and then giving a much clearer, more compelling opening statement of his own. In five minutes, the tone of the night had been established — the rest would just be painful, painful for Obama — and painfully dull.
Because of the format of the debate and particularly Jim Lehrer’s toothless questioning — essentially asking the candidates their positions on various huge topics, and then letting himself be bullied into not interrupting or directing them in more specific directions — the exchanges were not pointed, but meandering. The debate was a 90-minute wash of words. Even paying strict attention, the thing had the feel of white noise, with Romney, much more so than Obama, occasionally breaking through and saying something that registered, like a bit of talk radio come through the static perfectly clear.
Romney effectively used specific anecdotes or a list broken out by numbers — public speaking 101— to get the audience to refocus their attention. If he was “on the attack” it was only in comparison to Obama, who didn't manipulate his material or modulate his voice to make much of anything stand out (he got a little better as the night went on). Romney didn’t get in any good zingers — except of course at Big Bird — but he wasn’t opaque and dull every time he spoke, and he laid a good manhandling on Jim Lehrer. (In the age of viral videos, the DNC might want to rustle up a “Romney interrupts Lehrer” video ASAP. A clip of Romney bullying a helpless old man could really turn this thing around.)
Obama, on the other hand was almost a caricature of himself. Has Fred Armisen ever paused more in his impersonation of Obama? Obama was quick to smile, but his pause-filled answers came through a haze. His sentences were belabored and strangely constructed. While Romney spoke, Obama consistently looked down, as though after Al Gore’s body-language debate debacle in 2000 it’s still not 100 percent clear the candidates are always on-camera. Obama never went for the jugular, not only failing to mention the 47 percent, but going down boring policy rabbit holes. This morning he is regularly being described as “professorial,” but whatever class he was teaching was one it would have been hard not to sleep through.
A little after the mid-point, Obama began to wrap up an answer about Dodd-Frank: “The question is, does anybody out there think the big problem we had is there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?” he asked. Rather than follow this strong rhetorical question up with a strong statement about how that’s not what Obama believes, he went with the syntactically tortured and defensive, “Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.” Obama tried to tack on a “But that’s not what I believe,” but it was already too late. Romney was interrupting him.