Why Obama's debate performance was so mediocre: 4 theories

Armchair analysts agree: A surprisingly listless Obama failed to meet the challenge of an aggressive Mitt Romney in Wednesday's debate. What happened?

President Obama
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The consensus is clear: President Obama fell short Wednesday night, letting Mitt Romney run away with the first of this year's three presidential debates. In a CNN snap poll, 67 percent of viewers said Romney won the showdown, and 61 percent said Obama delivered a performance worse than they expected. Conservatives and liberals alike were flabbergasted that in 90 minutes on stage, Obama didn't once mention Romney's derisive comments about the "47 percent" of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. And many liberals were tearing their hair out, frustrated that Obama was so reserved in the face of Romney's attacks, many of them debunked by fact-checkers. "I don't know what [Obama] was doing out there" MSNBC's Chris Matthews lamented. "He had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it." Why was the president so flat? Here, four theories:

1. He was playing it safe

Obama went into the debate in command of the race, says Brett O'Donnell at The Daily Beast. He "played not to lose, played it safe, and lost." He "avoided clashing with ideas advanced by Romney, and in doing so ceded ground on almost every front, from tax policy to spending to energy." Romney aggressively criticized Obama's approach on just about every element of domestic policy, including the economy, taxes, spending, entitlements, energy, and education. As a result, viewers got one of the most substantive debates they'll ever see. And since "the president struggled to ever mount a meaningful counterattack," the impression voters took away was that he had fewer answers than Romney.

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2. Obama is just rusty

Romney has weathered 20 debates in the last 18 months. But "it had been nearly 1,400 days since Barack Obama strode onto a debate stage," says Glenn Thrush at Politico, "and it showed in a major way." For the last four years, Obama has been "speaking to hand-picked interviewers or lecturing audiences required to remain mostly mute while he spoke," and he "struggled to shake off the rust" when Romney came at him. Yes, Obama "seemed out of shape," says Byron York at the Washington Examiner. He "looked like a president who hasn't had to face many sharp challenges," while Romney "came across as a man who had made the most of session after session of debate prep," getting the better of Obama on jobs, taxes, energy — "pretty much everything."

3. It's hard to look good defending failed policies

Obama came across as "small, tired, defeated" for a simple reason, says John Hinderaker at PowerLine: His "ideas have been tried and found wanting," and now, after four years of failure, he's completely "out of ammo." In 2008, Obama exuded confidence as he used smoke and mirrors to sell the American public on his fantasy promise of hope and change. But after presiding over four years of economic pain, he looks "weak, hesitant, stuttering, often apologetic" standing next to Romney, the competent "alpha male" who's optimistic and ready to take over. The "pitiful figure" Romney just steamrolled "was the real Obama, the loser behind the curtain who is finally revealed as an utter hoax."

4. The deck was stacked against Obama

Look, Obama went into the debate up by several points in national polls, says Noam Scheiber at The New Republic, and "nearly uncatchable in swing states like Ohio." There "was no incentive for [him] to get creative." And the predictable format of this exchange — questions on taxes, then health care, then budgets, with two minutes for one candidate, then two for the other — was perfect for Romney, who "is impeccably prepared and executes well," only faltering when events take an unexpected turn. The evening was programmed to favor Romney. Obama did nothing to take back the reins and continue the "masterful job" his campaign has been doing to define Romney "as an out-of-touch plutocrat," and now the president is suffering the consequences.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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