Obama’s Debate Problem

I’ve held off on doing any debate reaction, mostly because I like to get myself a little removed from things like these to see how things are realigning before I bother to form an opinion. But, in the short version, I do think Obama came out slightly better than McCain in Friday night’s debate, but I think he has a bigger problem than he possibly realizes he needs to hammer out before the next debate.

Now, certain aspects of the CW certainly seem right to me. McCain was testy, cocky, patronizing, contemptuous, and petty; and every bit of it shown through on camera. Obama also managed to get him hot under the collar a few times challenging him on foreign policy and earmarks, and it looked like we were dangerously close toa blow up when Obama chided McCain for his “bomb Iran” rhetoric.

But, almost perversely, McCain did have Obama on the defensive during the portion of the debate focusing on domestic issues because, simply, Obama had no prepared response to McCain’s lies. When McCain made outright inaccurae statements of fact or shamelessly lied about Obama, Obama’s response was to try to forcefully respond, but to do so in a way as to avoid any direct, or indirect, accusation that McCain was lying. The result? McCain looked “agressive,” and Obama looked like he didn’t have a good response. In the long run though, this probably wasn’t the takeaway most viewers got, and it’s certainly not what pundits have focused on, so Obama gets a do over.

This is, I think, Obama’s chief weakness in a debate. Yes he knows his stuff. Yes he knows how to convey that he knows what he’s talking about. But he seems to look at these as something akin to a college debating contest, where you’re scored on technical points. This is part of an election. The “winner” is the person who moves the most voters to their camp. And Obama doesn’t have sharp, direct, responses when his opponents come after him. He doesn’t have the instinct to go on the offensive on minor points, misstatements, or whatever that could turn into game changers. For example, very early in the debate, McCain lamented a “loss of accountability” by insisting that he was criticized for calling for SEC Chairman Chris Cox’s resignation. But, of course, that’s not true, because McCain had said he would fire Cox, and he was criticized because the President doesn’t have the authority to fire the SEC chairman. But Obama just let the point go totally uncontested, when correcting it could have both worked in the idea that McCain has problems with the truth early on, and could have really pushed McCain’s buttons by, implicitly, questioning his honesty and integrity. The entire night could have been different with McCain off of his game. But Obama just doesn’t seem to understand these intracacies in a way that truly good debaters have. It might not matter if events continue to rule the day, but there’s still no reason for Obama to let McCain wiggle off the hook so many times.