Feature

The debate: Has Obama lost the will to win?

Obama’s performance was so listless and so lacking in positive vision that it was “close to disqualifying.”

“Does Barack Obama even want to win the election?” said Michael Tomasky in TheDailyBeast.com. Judging by the president’s listless performance in Denver last week, the answer appears to be no—and he may get his wish. After Republican Mitt Romney trounced Obama in their first presidential debate, Obama’s once-commanding poll lead disappeared, with RealClearPolitics.com’s poll of polls showing Romney ahead this week, 48 percent to 47 percent. The Obama who debated Romney looked grouchy and depressed; nearly four years ago, he floated into the White House genuinely believing that he “could be a post-partisan figure” who would “conquer the presidency” as he had everything else. Instead, his term has been marked by constant conflict and frustration, and “40 million or so Americans hate him.” Obama certainly thinks he deserves to be president, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, but he has come to disdain everything connected with politics—including debating. In the final days of the 2008 campaign, Obama joked to an aide that given the collapsing economy, “Maybe I should throw the game.” Last week in Denver, he may have done just that.

Liberals may be reeling, said Jonah Goldberg in NationalReview.com, but to the rest of us Obama’s dismal performance was “no surprise.” Despite the media’s best efforts to portray him as a gifted orator on the level of Churchill or Cicero, the real Obama “is the single most overrated politician of my lifetime”—a pedantic, monotonous lecturer with no talent for persuasion. The guy whom Romney demolished in Denver is “the same man who never managed to make Obamacare popular after more than 50 speeches and pronouncements.” Obama’s “strange incapacity” to respond forcefully and cogently to Romney’s attacks on his economic record was “nothing new,” said Obama biographer David Remnick in NewYorker.com. The president has “myriad skills as a thinker and as a speaker,” but he’s fundamentally an introverted loner who suffers from an “episodic unwillingness to connect with people.” That flaw has hampered his first term, and may cost him a second. 

You’ll see a different Obama in the next two debates, said John Heilemann in NYMag.com. It may have looked as if Obama had “lost his mojo,” but his advisers specifically instructed him to avoid attacking Romney directly, for fear he’d look mean. Their theory was that Obama was best served by “playing it safe,” and that confronting Romney might undermine the likability they perceive as Obama’s greatest strength. Clearly, that strategy backfired—but from here on, the ultra-competitive Obama will surely “raise his game.” 

It may be too late for that, said Andrew Sullivan in TheDailyBeast.com. Obama’s performance was so passive and apologetic, so utterly devoid of passionate, positive vision for the next four years, that it was “close to disqualifying.” Instead of going on offense on Romney’s videotaped dismissal of 47 percent of Americans, Obama let Romney get away with redefining himself as a moderate and best friend of the middle class. Obama’s problem goes deeper than poor debating skills, said Yuval Levin in NationalReview.com. His entire campaign strategy was to paint a “caricature of Mitt Romney” as a scary ideologue—a bumbling, heartless plutocrat. With a forceful and reasonable Romney on display, Democrats are in trouble. So now what? Try to revive the caricature? Talk about the Obama record? “Not exactly a wealth of great options.”

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