“My experience as a governor is if I come in and lay down a piece of legislation and say it's my way or the highway, I don't get a lot done.”
-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for President, in his first debate with President Obama.
President Obama told interviewers this week that his debate preparations were “a drag” because his advisers were making him do his “homework.”
It looks like the president should have been hitting the books a little harder.
The cool confidence that Obama was seeking to portray with his pre-debate, bad-boy lines matched the expectations of Democrats and the establishment press. Obama, a combination of cerebral policy wonk and friendly federal father, was going to mop the floor with the awkward, un-relatable Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
Whether Obama actually spent his time preparing to face Romney or if the lure of the golf courses at the resort outside of Las Vegas where Obama was supposed to be cramming were too great for the president we may never know, but whatever he did to get ready, it didn’t work for the commander in chief.
Obama’s attitude on the debate stage was that he was stoically enduring the barbs of an unworthy rival. With his downcast gaze and indulgent allowances that Romney did, in fact, have a few non-insane points was that of a great man forced to deal with a pipsqueak.
The smirking and the answers that expressed an exhausted patience with issues he felt should have been long retired revealed an executive impatience not seen since George H.W. Bush watched his watch in his 1992 face-off with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
The president got it all wrong, likely because the cloud of conventional wisdom in which he and his senior advisers are allowed to live had declared the election over weeks ago. This led Obama to underestimate his opponent and overestimate his own stature.
Romney was sharp and confident while Obama was listless and defensive. While the president was trying to run out the clock, Romney was trying to drive the discussion.
Romney’s very best moments came when he talked about the role of government and the dysfunction of Washington. In those points, he stole a page right out of Obama’s 2008 playbook by confounding public perceptions.
The quarter-billionaire investor talked about the dangers of too-big banks. The government cutter talked about how good regulations are important for citizens and corporations. The attacker of Obamacare talked about the need to protect patients.
And most of all, the leader of a party cast for two years by the Obama Democrats as intransigent and obstructionist talked about the need for bipartisan cooperation.
Remember, the polls may say that the top concerns of voters are the economy and the deficit, but the real top issue this year is that the government we have can no longer deal with these issues.
Voters may agree with the president that House Republicans deserve most of the blame for the sclerosis in Washington, but that’s not the same as believing he can do anything about it, or that he even wants to.
Obama’ best trick in debates and speeches is the use of straw men. He casts two unreasonable positions – for example a government that does everything and a government that does nothing – and then puts forward his own policy as the reasonable middle ground. When Obama says, “there are some who say…” it’s usually not followed by anything anyone has ever said, but it works.
But the president, apparently confusing his narrow advantage in the polls with approval for his term in office and policies sought to make the argument that Obamism is the right answer for America rather than his more typical and attractive version that it’s the best we can do given the economic and political malaise of the nation.
But Obama’s ego, spurred by Democratic triumphalism and the boundless credulity of the establishment press, led Obama to not take Romney seriously and to fail to adopt his preferred persona of a reasonable man working in an unreasonable system.
As Romney hammered away at Obama for his “my way or the highway” approach, the dials in dozens of focus groups turned Republican red. When Romney cut off Obama’s gusty answer to why he failed to rein in deficit spending by reminding the incumbent that he has “been president for four years” it was a lights-out moment for the already stumbling Obama.
Obama surely won’t make the same mistakes again when the men face off again in two weeks. There will be more straw men on stage at Hofstra University than at a pumpkin patch and Obama will deliver a high-energy performance. He will know better than to give Romney any ground.
And when Obama delivers a better turn in their second debate, the same press whose bias helped build Obama’s original overconfidence, will declare that Obama “is back” and that he put Romney on the defensive. Liberals, stunned by the puny performance of their man this week will declare the town-hall even a stunning victory for Obama and dire reversal for Romney.
But Obama made a grave error Wednesday in believing his own hype and allowed Romney to kick the door open heading into the final month of the campaign. Obama can never get back the moment in which he, by underestimating his opponent and overestimating himself, allowed Romney to become a plausible alternative.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30am ET at http:live.foxnews.com.