For all the disagreements aired during Wednesday night‚Äôs presidential debate, there was very little dispute about who won. Mitt Romney clobbered President Barack Obama, perhaps more with his demeanor than with his discussion of the issues, as FORBES Leadership Editor Fred Allen wrote in his post, ‚ÄúWho Won the Debate in Terms of Temperament?‚ÄĚ
Anyone can have a bad day (for more about that read Simon North‚Äôs recent guest post). But that‚Äôs not enough to explain Obama‚Äôs lack of energy and concentration. Sheer adrenaline should have been enough to get him through the debate. His job is on the line. He‚Äôs had plenty of practice with public speaking. He‚Äôs experienced in the Oval Office. Yet he seemed shaken and very unpresidential.
What the heck happened? Regardless of their political convictions, that‚Äôs the question Americans are still asking around the office water cooler; on TV and radio talk shows; and at social gatherings. These are some of the theories circulating.
He doesn‚Äôt really want to be President anymore. This would explain his apparent lack of conviction. Both history and common sense suggest that it‚Äôs very hard to give up the Oval Office by choice. The last president to do that was Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) who had announced in advance that he would serve only one term. All the other one-term presidents since then‚ÄďBenjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush‚Äďlost their jobs to challengers.
Still, being president is an enormously difficult position, and once the novelty wore off, one couldn‚Äôt blame Barack Obama for hating it. Among other things, he took office just as the Great Recession was starting, and it was inevitable that he would not be able to turn around the economy in a single term. One wonders whether he is unconsciously sabotaging his own election because he has such mixed emotions about the job.
He got too used to people saying ‚Äúyes‚ÄĚ to him. This seems unlikely. Sure, every president ‚ÄĒ and many corporate leaders too ‚ÄĒ surround themselves with staff who will kowtow to them. (See my post, Obama‚Äôs Leadership Lesson: Hire People ‚ÄėTo Tell You The Truth.‚Äô‚ÄĚ) But this theory overlooks Obama‚Äôs understanding of electoral politics. He‚Äôs too much of a realist to think that he‚Äôs infallible or to underestimate Mitt Romney.
He was distracted by a secret matter involving national security. There seemed to be something profoundly wrong Wednesday night. This is as good a possibility as any. The assassination of Osama bin Laden, conducted in secret on Obama‚Äôs watch, reminds us that we are never fully aware of what‚Äôs going on behind the scenes in our government.
He was distracted by a personal crisis. This is another strong possibility. Obama‚Äôs affection for his wife Michelle and their daughters is obvious. A serious family problem could easily shake him up. At the beginning of the debate, he mentioned his wedding anniversary. It was sappy and sentimental, but also out of place. He and Michelle are hardly newlyweds‚Äďthey‚Äôve been married for 20 years. Was this anniversary especially emotional because there‚Äôs trouble on the home front?
The debate format favored Romney‚Äôs style. No question about that, but Obama should have been capable of holding his own. Instead, at times it seemed like the slick businessman was trampling a college professor who had never been out of the ivory tower. Obama needed Jim Lehrer, the moderator, to rescue him.
Romney was better prepared. His delivery gave that impression, but it might have been a case of form over substance. Obama was at least as well versed on the issues, but his tentative demeanor that night detracted from his message.
The next presidential debate is on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. It will have a different format ‚ÄĒ a town hall meeting in which members of the audience can ask questions. Seeing the candidates in that setting will inevitably shed some light on the differences between them. But it may not get us any closer to solving this week‚Äôs head-scratcher.