It was a curious debate last week, and a depressing performance by President Obama. Like many people, I was speechless by the end of it.
Did Obama think he would be debating a different Romney? Did his debate preparers advise him not to attack? Obama critics had joked that he couldn't campaign without a teleprompter. Were they right?
Michael Tomasky on The Daily Beast and Garance Franke-Ruta on Atlantic.com offer an unsettling theory: that Obama may simply be so beaten down by the job that he no longer cares whether or not he wins a second term. If that's the case, it'll be hard to pull out of this funk, hard to win re-election. And it matters greatly whether Barack Obama is leading the country for the next four years or Mitt Romney is.
Five Obama associates told the New Yorker's David Remnick that they weren't particularly surprised at how the president did. Obama, they said, has never liked to debate and does better when he can be on his own, explaining his views.
Well, OK, but debating, like it or not, is a requirement in presidential campaigns, and unless he was distracted by a major crisis that hasn't yet been made public, Obama should have done better.
Maybe none of this will be significant in a week or so. The polls have fluctuated, as they usually do after conventions, debates, and candidate goof-ups. But as Nate Silver noted in his FiveThirtyEight column on Tuesday, the trend has been consistent, with Obama narrowly ahead.
What's most disturbing about Obama's abysmal evening is that it has overshadowed – in the minds of many commentators and apparently in the minds of many voters – Romney's own performance.
It's one thing to be distracted, or peeved, as Obama was. It's quite another to blithely lie, not only about an opponent's record and policies but even about your own. To say something that's not just misleading but is blatantly false – something that has been refuted by independent parties – and to keep repeating it. And smile.
Last week, Romney proved to be a master at that.
When the presidential campaign began, I thought Romney was a decent man, probably qualified but with conservative policies that I don't think are best for the country. Instead, we're seeing a candidate who is willing to say anything it takes to get elected.
(Surely the journalist deserving the award for the loopiest column of the campaign is the Times' David Brooks, whose post-debate conclusion was that we have now seen the Real Romney, and surprise! The Real Romney is the moderate Republican of Brooks' dreams.)
This is a particularly important election. The choice couldn't be clearer – and the difference in direction that the country will take after the election couldn't be starker.
Some of that difference will be on display on October 16, when the presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. Romney's pronouncements in this area have consisted of generalities and thin slogans, but the thrust is clear. He's big on American exceptionalism, defense spending, muscle flexing toward Russia and China, insulting and dismissing the Palestinians, and injecting ourselves – and American soldiers' lives – into conflicts here and there. America should "shape history," he said at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this week.
And as he showed with his irresponsible statement immediately after the tragedy at the consulate in Benghazi, he is prone to shooting from the hip, acting first, getting the facts later.
This is a complicated, often dangerous world, and developments in Iraq, Iran, and the Arab Spring countries are proof that there is nothing simple about shaping a president's foreign policy. Ultimately, the United States cannot deal with dangers abroad by itself. And bellicosity and braggadocio are not the mark of a great leader.
Next week, we'll learn more about both men, their foreign-policy knowledge and their vision for the world. And maybe on November 6, we'll learn something else important. And that is, which voters value most: substance and character or debate skills.
President Obama | Barack Obama | Mitt Romney | presidential campaign | presidential debate | Obama foreign policy | Romney foreign policy