The first 2012 presidential debate won’t be remembered for any bombastic lines in the vein of Ronald Reagan or Lloyd Bentsen, or the perspiration visual of Richard Nixon.
In fact, the most-talked about takeaways from the evening will most likely be Big Bird and Jim Lehrer — both of whom had parody Twitter accounts and thousands of followers before the 90-minute debate even ended.
But tonight’s debate had even liberal pundits complaining about the performance of the president.
“I can’t even follow him half the time. Either exhausted, over-briefed … or just flailing. He’s throwing debate away,” tweeted Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast.
“Obama made a lot of great points tonight. Unfortunately, most of them were for Romney,” tweeted comedian Bill Maher.
Even Vanity Fair tweeted, “Has Obama ever been this off his game?”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had an awkward moment where he said he didn’t support the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan, but President Obama should have. Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), half of the president’s appointed deficit-reduction commission, was in the audience at the University of Denver.
“Simpson-Bowles, the president should have grabbed that,” Romney said in response to a question from Lehrer on whether he supported the commission’s recommendations.
“No, I mean, do you support Simpson-Bowles?” Lehrer pressed.
“I have my own plan. It’s not the same as Simpson-Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it,” Romney said.
Obama argued that he had snatched up the plan and tweaked it to his liking before presenting it to Congress — but if there was one thing that brought left and right together tonight, it was the general agreement from professional and armchair pundits alike that Obama wasn’t arguing for much of anything at this debate, never mind fighting passionately for it.
Obama’s talking points, honed in debate practice sessions with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) acting as Romney, were largely retreads of his campaign stump speeches, though less finely tuned. While Romney gave the predictable bemused looks toward Obama and the president responded to Romney’s points with some characteristic smirks, Obama’s attitude out of the gate was oddly more contrite than cocky.
In this seemingly Herculean effort to remain measured and not display an off-putting attitude toward Romney, Obama came across as bland and dispassionate.
On what should have been a warring point on entitlement reform, the president said, “I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it is — the basic structure is sound.”
Totally absent were the expected hit lines on the 47 percent, the Cayman Islands, and even Obama’s “economic patriotism” meme tailored to moderates that he seemed to have been saving for the home stretch of the campaign and put into use within the past week to describe his fairness doctrine.
But the attitude that came across in Obama’s “you’re likable enough” comment directed at Hillary Clinton four years ago was actually directed at Lehrer this time. When the moderator told the president that his two minutes were up, Obama snapped at Lehrer, “No, I think — I had five seconds before you interrupted me.”
Romney fired a volley in Lehrer’s direction in talking about PBS funding.
“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s number one,” Romney said.
“I guess Romney forgot how to get to Sesame Street!” tweeted DC councilman Marion Barry, who was watching the debate at DNC headquarters “along with other loyal Democrats.”