If anyone thought that the feisty Biden debate undid the massive damage the president did to himself in the first debate, the news isn’t great. Biden does seem to have reversed the speed of Obama’s free-fall but not the decline itself. Romney’s debate obliteration of Obama – something that, in my view, irreparably damages a sitting president – does not seem to be a bounce, but a resilient jump. It’s not going away by itself. That is: not a bounce. And if you were a low-information voter and watched the first debate with one man with energy and ideas (however deceptive) against a president who looked like he was making small talk with a bore at a cocktail party, you’d pick the challenger yourself. It turns out it wasn’t the economy (it’s been perking up lately) that’s become the main challenge for Obama. Nor the Electoral College. Nor a motivated, radical GOP base. It turns out that the main challenge for Obama’s re-election in the final stretch is Obama himself. I’ve been pilloried for being excitable about that epic first debate. But just look at that graph above (with heightened sensitivity) of the campaign poll of polls since February and tell me I was wrong.
Romney is now comfortably ahead nationally, gaining four points, as the president has lost three, since that debate. The result is a seven point swing in a couple of weeks, with momentum now firmly in Romney’s direction. Momentum matters. Obama had it. He threw it away. It will be extremely hard, with such little time left, to get it back.
As an Obama supporter, I remain committed, if deeply demoralized. The reason for that new ambivalence is not that the reasons for re-electing him have changed – we desperately need to raise revenues to tackle the debt, we cannot launch a new Judeo-Christian war against Islam in the Middle East without igniting an even more ferocious global religious conflict; it’s just wrong to cut off healthcare access for tens of millions, while ending homecare for countless seniors, while not even making a dent in the actual budget – because of give-aways to the extremely rich. And the way the Obama campaign had made those arguments clearly and consistently and built a brilliant campaign all the way to the first debate was quite something to behold. To be given a gift like the Romney 47 percent video is a rare event in national politics. To get it in the fall of an election should have made an Obama victory all but assured.
But Obama threw it all back in his supporters’ faces, reacting to their enthusiasm and record donations with a performance so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him. What he has to do now is so nail these next two debates, so obliterate Romney in both, that he can claw his way back to victory. But if he manages just evenly-matched debates, let alone another Romney win, he’s a goner. Elections for president comes down to two individuals. You only get to see them up against each other in the flesh three times. The first time – always the most important – made Romney look like a president and Obama an ex-president. It will take a lot of intelligence, fire and argument to turn that around in the time remaining. And for the first time, after the sucker-punch of the first debate, I’m not entirely sure Obama has it in him.