This was a debate for the green-eyeshade crowd. If you tuned in Wednesday night to see President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney offer inspiring visions for the future, you heard more numbers than you did paeans to America.
The bottom line on engagement with an American public not five weeks from Election Day: Romney was alert, energized and confident. Obama slumped his shoulders, smiled mostly to himself, and for some reason kept staring down. He was that guy at the meeting who’s surreptitiously checking his email.
The exciting 2008 candidate of hope and change? Gone. Even the larger-than-life American eagle hanging behind the two candidates seemed perplexed.
This was, though, a serious exchange blessedly shy of rehearsed jabs – that gentlemanly, biceps-gripping handshake followed by the one-against-one collision this presidential race hadn’t seen.
Romney moved fast to keep viewers from straying to ESPN. By 8:12 p.m. Chicago time, he already had evoked Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe of the week: Romney suggested that under Obama’s policies, the middle class has been “buried.” Not until 8:24 did Obama retort with his own one-liner – that the American economy was sound when his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton was president.
By then, though, the talk about federal tax rates was deeply in the weeds. Before the debate’s economic segment had ended, we wondered if we had tuned into a reality program, “The Wonk and the Prof.” The former, Romney, was agile and ready to rumble; the prof, by contrast, seemed wordy and defensive.
That projection from Obama makes some sense: For the first time in 16 years, a Democratic president had to defend a first term in the White House in a national debate. Romney was free to play offense, at one point reminding Obama that when the president agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2010, Obama said it would be unwise to raise taxes when the economy was struggling.
Obama nodded with evident pleasure when Romney said he wouldn’t raise taxes going forward. The president clearly disagreed – and looked less enthused when Romney asserted that he instead wants to raise federal revenues by putting more Americans to work.
Throughout their economic discussion, the two men probed repeatedly at each other’s perceived vulnerabilities: that Romney, a man of immense personal wealth, favors the rich. And that Obama, having pledged four years ago to halve the federal deficit, failed.
Romney spent the night clearly trying to execute a difficult game of Twister – trying to emphasize his personal likability while simultaneously dismantling the president’s performance in the economic realm. He likely made some progress on both fronts.
We had expected Obama to spend a good share of Wednesday night working to re-energize the voter coalition that elected him in 2008. And with urgent reason: A Politico poll released Monday had Democratic intensity slipping slightly to 75 percent from 81 percent in the afterglow of the party’s national convention. Meanwhile, the share of Republicans describing themselves as “extremely likely to vote” stayed at about 80 percent.
But as the night wore on, it was Romney brimming with ideas and offering that he would rather work out specific solutions with Congress next year, not issue ultimatums to the legislative branch today. Obama talked more about the health care plan he signed into law than he did about initiatives he would advance in a second term.
Both of these men boast Ivy League degrees. And each has shown himself capable of tremendous personal achievement.
But on Wednesday night, one man behaved as if he wanted to use what he has learned in life to lift America from its torpor. The other man behaved as if he was still strolling across Harvard Yard.
This editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.