Obama was there in body, but in spirit?

I should say, he appeared to win, not because of denial or wishful thinking but because of experience. Voters often don’t see debates the way pundits see them, although snap surveys by CNN and CBS News gave a big edge to Romney over President Obama. We’ll know for sure in a few days, when we have more rigorous polling data, just how good a night it was for Romney. My guess is that he might well have done what he needed, which was to convince persuadable voters to give him another look.

President Obama was well informed, as usual, but he seemed almost disengaged. His body language was that of a man who wanted to check his watch but knew he couldn’t. Romney had to be the aggressor and spent the evening on the balls of his feet. The split-screen shot often showed Obama looking down, apparently taking notes, while Romney was looking at Obama, trying to decide where to aim the next punch. The punches themselves were weak jabs, for the most part; annoyances that made Obama frown as if under assault by mosquitos. He was never staggered. But nothing was going to stand in Romney’s way, certainly not formalities like time limits. Or facts. Or the moderator.

Don’t blame Jim Lehrer, though. From the beginning, he made it clear that if the candidates wanted to take control and go after each other, he wasn’t going to try to stop them. Both candidates had the opportunity to filibuster, disown previously avowed positions, distort the opponent’s record and generally try to hijack the debate and turn it into a lengthy campaign ad. Only Romney accepted the invitation.

Obama did point out that Romney’s math doesn’t add up. He called him once on a flip-flop, saying, “Now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is ‘Never mind’?” But the president never seemed to be the aggressor, never seemed to be setting the agenda for the encounter. Obama was there in body and mind, but you had to wonder if he was fully there in spirit.

Debates seldom decide elections. For this fact, Obama World must tonight be grateful.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.


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