SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Contrary to conventional wisdom that debates are rarely, if ever, game-changers, the first presidential debate was a demolition derby.
And no amount of post-debate fact-checking, spinning or dances of one’s choice (Barack Obama has cited Mitt Romney’s tap-dancing and soft-shoe) is going to alter the impression of Romney’s winning-ness.
It was quite simply a knockout performance by the Republican challenger. Or, as Notre Dame professor and political observer Robert Schmuhl put it, “Romney gets a gold medal, and Obama wasn’t even in the same competition.”
Schmuhl, a professor of American studies and the author of Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality,” told me that, on optics alone, the victor was clear:
“All one had to do on Wednesday night is turn down the volume and study the body language of the two figures. After a short period of time, there was no comparison in terms of performance.”
As anyone watching the debate couldn’t avoid noticing, the president rarely looked at Romney, seemingly riveted by something on his lectern. He may have been taking notes—or studying the wood grain—but the effect was to appear disengaged. Or miffed. Or rude. Refusing to look at people when they’re talking, whether a debating partner, a spouse or a colleague, is a blatant act of passive hostility. One need only be human to recognize it.
Obama’s performance has been sufficiently critiqued, though one tic may have escaped attention. His million-dollar smile, which usually lights up a room, seemed like a flashlight in broad daylight. It appeared to be remembered punctuation, as though thinking to himself, he decided:
“This is not going well. Oh wait, they love it when I smile.” Ignition.
Far from being an expression of humor, confidence or even friendliness, the smile seemed false, an impostor at a funeral, a news reader’s inappropriate cheerfulness at catastrophic news.
It was, frankly, painful to watch.
Visually, the effects were clear—and in the age of media and personality, visuals matter. As Schmuhl noted, Romney, despite being 65 and Obama just 51, seemed the much younger man—both youthful and energetic. Obama seemed tired, peeved and eager to be anywhere but there.
The morning brought bad reviews, but given Obama’s now-legendary isolation from any but his tight circle of confidantes, it isn’t clear he is aware of them. Instead, he was out stumping and trumpeting as though he had left the arena victorious. Standing the next day in his comfort zone before 30,000 fans, he wondered who that man had been—that Romney guy who showed up at the debate.
In fact, the Romney who appeared in Denver to duke it out with the president is the one supporters once knew. It was the most recent Romney—the awkward, gaffe-prone Romney—who now seemed the stranger. Friends and close associates talking among themselves had been wondering what happened to their Romney—the smart, over-achieving businessman who was never at a loss for solutions.
He’s back. The dog is off the roof. Likability is now moot.
And likability, it turns out, isn’t about a winning smile or a cross-court shot. It’s about competence. Romney may not be able to perform the miracles he promises. Most presidents, once in office, discover that doing is harder than saying. But Wednesday night he conveyed a depth of knowledge as well as a level of confidence that is infectious.
Obama gave rebuttals that failed to convince.
Friday’s jobs report, putting unemployment below 8 percent for the first time since Obama was inaugurated, no doubt put some spring back in his step and may have stolen some of Romney’s fire. But what is clear is the game is by no measure over.
Before the debate Wednesday, Americans by a 2 to 1 margin believed that Obama would secure a second term. Yet the fact that 67.2 million people tuned in to the debate suggests a higher level of interest than a fait accompli would indicate. According to Nielsen, the TV ratings company, Obama-vs.-Romney viewership was up 28 percent from the first presidential debate four years ago. The largest audience in 2008 came with the second debate at 63.2 million viewers.
At this point, with the new jobs numbers following on the impressions of the first debate, as Schmuhl puts it, “reality and mediality converge.”
Which is to say, anything could happen and all bets are off. Game on.