Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama decisively in the first presidential debate on October 3, 2012. He showed himself to be much more likable than the President and orders of magnitude smarter. Most important of all, he looked and sounded presidential and he controlled the left-leaning moderator, Jim Lehrer, with a polished brilliance.
It is interesting to observe how occupying the White House saps the performance of incumbents in such encounters. We first noted this in the 1980 debate between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s dominance moved him from 8 points behind to an eventual 5 point victory in the November 1980 election. We saw the same phenomenon in the 1992 debate between incumbent George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush’s demeanor in the crucial debate, sluggish, off-balance and clock-watching, presaged yesterday’s demeanor by Obama almost exactly. Eyes-down is not an election winner!
My interpretation of these reversals of fortune is that occupying the White House is a personality deforming experience. Too much privilege, too much comfort and too much sycophancy leave an incumbent totally unprepared for vigorous open debate. That is something that never occurs in the Oval Office. Perhaps, the inference is that presidents should be limited to a single term in office. Surely, in most cases, second-term incumbents do not make good fists of their responsibilities. Vigor and drive, enthusiasm, and integrity tend to decline quickly once re-election has been achieved.
Now victory in one debate is unlikely to prove decisive for Romney in a situation where the President has already established a small lead in the polls. But with a month to go before November 6, and with the independents now fully focused on the election, the race is almost certain to tighten.
However, two more performances by Obama comparable to the first, and he will truly be celebrating next year’s wedding anniversary in different circumstances – back to Hawaii is my best guess. And there are many worse fates than that for a tired and listless man, old before his time!