The Strategic Flaw in Obama’s Debate Performance
The most telling moment of the first presidential debate came when Jim Lehrer asked the candidates to discuss their differences on Social Security. Obama could have mentioned how GOP leaders, including Romney’s own running mate, have supported handing part of the program over to Wall Street. He could have held up Social Security as a perfect example of government benefits that people earn by working hard all their lives—not, as Governor Romney might have it, an enabler of moochers. Instead, the president began his response by assuring voters that both he and his rival were equally well-intentioned. “I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. … the basic structure is sound.”
Romney, for his part, was all-in. He quickly pivoted to that other entitlement program and attacked Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care bill, even though Paul Ryan has proposed the exact same cuts. With Obama essentially vouching for his good faith, he assured future generations that “I’ve got proposals to make sure Medicare and Social Security are there for them without any question.”
It was the story of the night: Obama not just in a defensive crouch but a stunningly conservative one at that, and Romney pressing his indictment of Obama while looking authoritative, eminently reasonable, and even emotive at times.
For what it’s worth, I don’t fault Obama for some of his strategic choices. Liberals are stewing over his refusal to slap Romney for his infamous 47-percent riff. I think Obama made the right call. Pretty much anyone for whom that was likely to matter has already heard the Romney recording. By reminding them of it, Obama risked looking overly snide or cutting.