Barack Obama gained one last chance to present his second-term domestic agenda directly to a mass audience in Monday night’s debate, and he blew it.
Even though the debate and all of moderator Bob Schieffer’s questions revolved around foreign affairs, GOP challenger Mitt Romney was all too eager to turn the discussion to domestic and economic issues. And the President, despite even progressive media lamenting his lack of a clear second-term vision over the weekend, did not try to turn the conversation in his favor but relied on familiar tropes. Romney told Detroit to go bankrupt. Romney is for corporate outsourcing. Romney doesn’t want the rich to play by the same rules as the middle class. Romney admires Dick Cheney.
Obama’s closing statement, though it did focus on the American economy, struck the wrong tone entirely. From a body language perspective, he was visibly irritated, with a furrowed brow and finger pointed at the viewer. And thematically, it was stale, continuing the theme he’s hammered since the Democratic National Convention: yes, things are bad, but you don’t know how good you have it compared to where those guys would take you.
While Romney did spend a good chunk of time attacking the President’s economic record, it was to portray a problem which he promised voters he could resolve. Referencing his experience in business, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, and his governorship, Romney depicted himself as a positive force to improve a bad situation. In his final two minutes, Romney was inviting rather than lecturing; even if it was entirely put on, the former Governor at least attempted a smile and warmth.
These final messages to the American people serve as a microcosm of the two campaigns so far. Obama has run as “anyone but Romney” when many expected Romney to take a similar approach against the incumbent Democrat. The worst negativity has not come from the nasty GOP plutocrat but from the post-partisan Lightbringer. Romney has insisted from the beginning of the campaign that he believes the President is a good man who is not right for the job of President; Obama’s deputy campaign director was caught seemingly coordinating in the preparation of a Super PAC ad which insinuated Romney killed a man’s wife.
The real story of Monday’s debate is that Romney put his finger on the pulse of the American people. He gambled on a final positive economic appeal rather than a dogged attack on the President’s foreign policy, assuming that issue would be the one to drive them to the polls on election day.
And Obama, even after seeing the concern from his own side about his lack of an agenda, whiffed on his final opportunity to present a similarly inspiring message to tens of millions of voters.