President Obama isn’t the first incumbent president to fall victim to a tough performance in his first debate.
Recent history, in fact, is littered with presidents struggling to defend their records the first time out. And four of the last five presidents were judged to have lost their first debate.
Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter debated only once in 1980, and the debate was a disaster for Carter. Notable moments for Reagan included “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and “There you go again,” and Carter was criticized for citing his daughter’s opinion that nuclear disarmament was the most important issue facing the country.
Carter didn’t have a chance to recover in a second debate, because there was none, and he wound up losing in a landslide a week later.
Reagan’s reelection campaign rolled around in 1984, and he also floundered in his first debate. When Walter Mondale attacked Reagan for cutting Medicare, Reagan struggled to muster a response.
Reagan struggled so much, in fact, that there were questions about whether the 73-year-old was sharp enough for the presidency.
In the second debate, though, Reagan answered the critics, joking, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
In 1992, George H.W. Bush got generally bad reviews in all three of his debates with Bill Clinton. And then-President Clinton, in 1996, turned in generally strong performances in each debate and never ceded his clear lead in his race with Bob Dole.
By 2004, George W. Bush was running for reelection and faced a tough first debate on foreign policy with John Kerry amid increasing concerns about the Iraq War.
Bush didn’t give a good performance, but things got better in later debates when the topic shifted to other issues.
Similarly, the topic of the first debate on Wednesday — domestic issues (read: the economy) — was going to be Obama’s toughest. It’s hard to make a strong case on the economy when it’s not improving fast enough for most peoples’ liking.
If nothing else, the formats and topics of the next couple of debates — a town hall-style debate and then a foreign policy debate — should be more in Obama’s wheelhouse. A town hall tends to be less confrontational, and Obama has generally strong approval numbers on foreign policy (though events in Libya could put a damper on things).
If previous debates are any indication, Obama could benefit from a change in subject matter and also from a chance to reconcile his campaign with what happened during the first debate on Wednesday.
If he can do it, Wednesday could very well wind up to be little more than a speed bump.