By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
7:31 AM EDT, October 4, 2012
More was definitely less for President Barack Obama Wednesday night in the first televised presidential debate.
The president spoke for 42 minutes and 50 seconds, while GOP candidate Mitt Romney only 38 minutes and 32 seconds by CNN's count.
But in TV terms, Obama's performance was far inferior.
Romney seemed confident, competent, poised and dominant, while Obama seemed distracted, incapable of clarity and, at times, even hesitant and uncertain of what he wanted to say. Compared to his superb TV performances of 2008, Obama's effort Wednesday night was kind of shocking. There seemed to be no energy, conviction or certainty in the man wearing the blue tie onstage Wednesday night.
Romney, on the other hand, generated an almost pitch perfect persona to not just win the debate, but to possibly start to counter intensely negative perceptions of him widely generated throughout the media.
What Romney communicated to the camera more than anything else was earnestness. This was not the uncaring boss or CEO who took over companies, fired people left and right, shipped jobs overseas and stuffed his gross profits in offshore accounts -- the Romney that has been created both by Romney's opponents and some of the candidate's own misguided statements.
This was a Romney of grace, poise and even some sensitivity, who cleverly started out by congratulating the president on his wedding anniversary and adroitly joking about how Obama would probably rather not be spending the evening with him.
But once the debate started, Romney took it to the president like a starting pitcher who comes out throwing a 95 m.p.h. hour fastball and hitting both sides of the plate pitch to pitch.
I think Obama was actually shocked at first by Romney's forcefulness when the challenger asked the president how with 23 million Americans out of work or having given up looking for a job, he could spend the first years in office focused on Obamacare instead of trying to put people back to work.
And what mattered most is that Romney asked it in just the right tone -- with the appearance of more incredulity than intent to insult or heckle the president.
Obama fumbled in his answer. After some "uhs" and "ahs," he eventually said he focused on the Affordable Healthcare Act "and jobs." But the answer was halting, twisted and strung out to the point where the "and jobs" was all but lost.
Worse, and this is the very worst part of Obama's performance in TV terms, never during that answer or many others about the economy, did he communicate any sense of compassion or even concern for the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down if not shredded by the harsh economy. If there was any part of the debate where the president could not afford to be flat and lifeless this was it: talking about people who were out of work. And yet he was all night long.
In the end, I think Obama looked TV bad no matter what channel you watched. But I think there were varying degrees of bad depending on where you watched.
I watched much of the debate on CNN because they stayed in split screen and continually allowed me to watch the candidates react to each others' words. Obama looked terrible in his reactions. He literally winced at times, as when Romney talked about the "green" companies that the government had invested millions in, which had gone bust, some of them run by big Obama campaign contributors in 2008.
The president also kept looking down and flashing a tight, little, artificial facial expression that fell somewhere between a smirk and a smile. It rarely felt in sync with what was happening in the debate. It made Obama seem like someone struggling to find the appropriate mask to put in place before looking up at the camera and addressing his opponent.
I really thought CNN made a great call in layering the split screen on top of the pool feed, which all the channels used. The reactions matter, and no one gave us more of them than CNN.
On the other hand, I wish CNN had given me a better orientation to the stage and the podium and moderator Jim Lehrer before going exclusively to split screen. At first, when I saw Obama looking away from Romney in the split-screen setup, I thought he was looking off-stage. It was only when I switched to PBS and saw the full stage that I realized Obama was really looking at Lehrer. He was trying to work the referee, as they say on the basketball court. He did successfully work Lehrer for more time, but only to a bad end.
I have to say something about Lehrer. He was a disaster. He lost control of the debate almost from the opening moments. It was sad to see this once powerful TV presence in this hapless state. I will say no more. Lehrer was awful.
Near the end when Obama said to the 78-year-old PBS anchorman, "You're doing a great job," you wondered whether Obama was that off in all his perceptions Wednesday night, or if he has come to believe after four years in office and far too many visits to fawning TV talk show hosts that he can say anything and viewers will think it's the truth.
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