On October 3 we saw flustered Obama. On October 16, flustered Obama was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we saw aggressive Obama. As it turns out aggressive Obama is no more endearing than flustered Obama.
In the second presidential debate, President Obama was clearly trying to appeal to his base, who felt he needed to hit at Governor Romney harder, tout his accomplishments more fervently, and highlight the contrasting visions of the two parties more starkly. Obama did just that and likely left many Democrats applauding at their television sets — and many audience members laughing at his one-liners about comparing pension size.
Unfortunately for the president, his performance at Tuesday’s debate, while satiating his base, came off to those who weren’t craving Romney’s blood as overly aggressive, condescending and rude.
The confrontational tone of the debate was struck early on when Romney criticized the current administration’s licensing and permitting processes. Obama left his seat and advanced towards the governor while interrupting him. The two candidates shouted over each other on several occasions throughout the night, but this particular instanced appeared as if the debate was about to descend into fisticuffs.
Obama’s public speaking strength is that he appears calm and cool while rhetorically providing a grand and inspiring vision to voters. That Obama — the Obama from campaign 2008 — has been absent these past couple of debates. Instead, Obama was overly defensive — a part he does not play well. Romney conversely was relaxed while still being authoritative — he was presidential.
This was the Romney voters had heard about. The profoundly knowledgeable Romney his business partners had seen making deals in the boardroom; the amicable and engaging Romney his family knows and loves. The pragmatic and centrist Romney who won the governorship of Massachusetts as a Republican and worked with a majority-Democratic legislature to balance the budget every year he was in office. This was a Romney Americans could see as their next president.
Whenever an audience member asked a question, Romney appeared to actually try to convince them why his plan wasn’t simply better than Obama’s, but achieved the results the individual sought. While both men were light at times on specific policy, Romney’s delivery was much smoother than the president’s — much more respectful and engaging.
When a 20 year-old student asked the candidates how they planned to ensure that university students like him could find employment after graduation, Romney spoke about his experience in the private sector and ensured the audience member that his — as yet unstated — plan for the economy would create high quality jobs for all university graduates, as well as shore up existing programs, such as Pell grants.
The president, on the other hand, almost immediately dismissed the question and talked about the need to grow America’s manufacturing base. It’s hard to know what the student’s dreams are for his life upon graduation, but it is unlikely that he, or many other university graduates, look forward to a factory job once they complete their BA.
A former Obama supporter unimpressed by the president’s first term asked him why he deserved a second chance. Stating that he was financially worse off now than when the president began, the man asked to be reassured that the president had a plan for the next four years. Instead of laying out a plan for his next term, Obama argued with the man, claiming that he was in fact better off now because, ultimately, Osama bin Laden had been hunted down and killed by the Obama administration. Unless this man had made a sizable bet that bin Laden would be killed while Obama was president, it’s hard to see where this empty self-aggrandizement provided actual economic relief to him or any other American.
The worst display of this new, aggressive Obama was when an audience member asked about the attacks on America’s Libyan embassy and who in the administration was responsible for denying requests for additional security. In answering, the president didn’t so much direct his condescension and anger at Romney as he did at the audience member. Speaking down to a potential voter asking a legitimate question about the safety of Americans overseas is not likely to sway other, similarly concerned voters.
Obama had a chance to build on the success of Joe Biden’s performance in the vice-presidential debate. Unfortunately for him, he squandered it. His overly aggressive display on Tuesday night may well have cost Obama substantial support in key swing states. For many voters, Romney’s skill at appearing knowledgeable, calm, and authoritative may well switch the prevailing narrative from wanting “Anyone but Obama” to actually wanting a President Romney. That motivation may be all that is needed in this close race to place the Romney-Ryan ticket in the White House.