The early consensus on the debate among the pundit class: Mitt Romney helped himself a lot with a strong first debate performance, President Obama didn’t. And that included plenty of commentators supportive of Obama as well.
“It looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn’t want to be there,” Democratic strategist and CNN contributor James Carville said. He later added Obama did not bring his “A game.”
Alex Castellanos, a former Romney advisor who has often been critical of his campaign, said he was surprised by his “very effective” performance.
Many were surprised that Obama appeared reluctant to go on offense, never mentioning many of his own campaign’s attacks on Romney over Bain Capital or his recent leaked remarks dismissing 47 percent of Americas “victims.” In general, commentators suggested he appeared less comfortable than Romney onstage.
Blogger Andrew Sullivan, a longtime supporter of the president who has written several cover stories for Newsweek defending his record, indicated he was extremely worried about the debate performance.
“Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am, and I can see the logic of some of Obama’s meandering, weak, professorial arguments,” Sullivan said. “But this was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look.”
MSNBC host Chris Matthews disapproved as well: “Obama should watch MSNBC. He would learn something every night.”
Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein suggested that Obama may have helped himself by pinning Romney down on some specifics, for example Romney’s inaccurate claim in the debate that his health care plan would cover Americans with pre-existing conditions. But overall, the damage from the feeding frenzy in the press over the immediate performance would be a problem.
“Much worse for Obama than the debate is the media’s harsh verdict on his debate performance,” Klein tweeted.
Several commentators on right and left cautioned that it was unclear how much a consensus Romney win would sway the polls, especially in swing states like Ohio where he’s been persistently behind:
One big caveat. Romney won, but winning debates doesn’t always mean winning votes.But in a close race, every vote counts— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) October 4, 2012
But regardless of what comes next, the overwhelming reaction was unmistakable across party lines: the Obama that dominated the presidential debates in 2008 did not show up.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.