Yet perhaps the reason for Obama’s reluctance to face questions and counter-argument was not just that Obama is not very good at it and resents doing his homework (“a drag”), and not just that his economic and foreign policy records are dismal and would be hard to defend under scrutiny, but largely that he has had scant need to work on debating or sharpening his analytical skills — given the investment of the media and popular culture in his success.
An often distracted and diffident Obama has astutely understood that his own fortunes were in some strange way a referendum on the liberal sensibilities of legions of neurotic but influential elites. That realization had excused him from much of the mundane worries of other politicians — almost as if problematic things like polls, government statistics, laws surrounding lay-off notices, or controversies (from Fast and Furious to the Libya consulate disaster) would all be properly adjusted by others more interested in his success than he in his own.
How else could he be so recklessly careless in his effusive praise of the odious racist Rev. Wright, or so patently insincere in his demagogic and racialist rants before largely African-American audiences? How else could he simultaneously demonize the Bush anti-terrorism protocols while embracing or expanding nearly all of them, or so clearly provide his own arguments (e.g., deficit will be cut in half, if he hasn’t solved the problem, he would be a one-term president, etc.?) against himself?
Does all this mean that Obama cannot bounce back a bit in the next two debates? Not really.
Expectations have changed after the greatest audience in the history of presidential debates saw a veritable empty suit — or empty chair — on stage, without a helpful media follow-up question, or a “make no mistake about it” refrain to be had. Over 60 million now expect little at all from their president in the debate, so Obama will benefit from dismal expectations by just showing up as the incumbent and being addressed as “Mr. President.” The pressure on Romney to be even more impressive mounts. The realization that another rant by a liberal commentator could cement the reputation of Obama as an incompetent and add to the image of a hopelessly inept president will temper post-debate media anger. The moderator cannot afford to be laissez-faire in the fashion of Jim Lehrer, and will prove far more partisan. The media pressure to discount the importance of the debates themselves will increase.
But despite all that, the nation has now seen that the conservative critique of Barack Obama — fluff without substance — was frighteningly accurate.