Expect Obama to Underperform Again in Second Debate

According to the narrative of most journalists, President Obama has developed the political equivalent of Steve Blass disease. Blass was a Pittsburgh Pirates hurler who came up in the late Sixties with a bang – he won eighteen games in 1968, including seven shutouts, and threw two complete games in the 1971 World Series, allowing only seven hits and two runs. He finished second on the team MVP voting behind only Roberto Clemente. But two seasons later, Blass lost his control practically overnight, taking on a bizarre inability to throw strikes. There was no explanation for it — the stud pitcher suddenly was walking nearly a batter an inning. The New Yorker piece on the tragedy illustrates his desperation:

He consulted a psychiatrist, an optomotrist, unusual forms of pitching practice, tried transcendental meditation & hypnosis… His collapse is unique, no other player in recent baseball history has lost his form so suddenly & never recovered it.

 The reason I don’t buy the conventional wisdom that Obama will bounce back and win the debate tonight is because I don’t think he has Steve Blass disease. I think he lost his fastball long ago, if he ever had it. Molly Ball is one of the few journalists to notice that this really is the Obama who’s been here all along; the press (and therefore the people) just haven’t noticed.

At the Univision forum, host Jorge Ramos pressed Obama hard on his failure to enact immigration reform, and Obama had no good answer. “You did not keep your promise,” Ramos charged. Obama responded with a rambling answer about how busy he’d been with the economic crisis and how little cooperation he got from Republicans. Ramos didn’t let him off the hook: “A promise is a promise,” he said. Obama’s answer was an airless civics lesson… Elsewhere in the Sept. 20 interview, Obama made the startling statement that “you can’t change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside.” He blamed the deadly storming of the Benghazi consulate on reaction to an incendiary American-made video even though other members of his administration had already begun describing it as a preplanned terrorist attack. He went rather easy on Romney for his recently revealed “47 percent” comments. And the president was greeted by a markedly less enthusiastic response from the audience than Romney had gotten the night before; Romney’s campaign had packed the room with supporters while Obama’s team didn’t bother… All of these comments were minor slips at worst, but they showcased a president who was less than quick-on-his-feet in the less demanding format of a national television interview.

And now he needs a knockout. But he won’t get it.

 My expectation for tonight is that Obama will again underperform expectations. More Americans expect the old, fraudulent image of “everything to everyone” Superman Obama to show up. But put me down for the small portion of bettors who think the president will make the mistake of overcorrecting, coming across as petulant, personal, and small-minded where he wants to seem tough. A townhall debate is not the format to go gunning after Romney on his business career – you want to seem empathetic, hopeful, inspiring in a townhall, not crassly political and aggressive. Al Gore learned this lesson the hard way (Dingell-Norwood!).

The real concern for Obama ought to be showing the American people that he has a policy vision for his second term that really will turn things around.

In a stark warning on the eve of the second presidential debate, veteran Democratic strategists Stanley B. Greenberg and James Carville write in a newly released memo that the campaign “has reached a tipping point” that could cost President Obama reelection if he does not present a more compelling vision for the next four years. “The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer[s] a very modest vision of future change,” the two say in a Democracy Corps memo cowritten with Erica Seifert, a senior associate at Greenberg’s polling firm. “Voters are not looking for continuity, but changes that help the average Joe.” In an interview, Greenberg said that at the first debate, Mitt Romney caused many voters who are worried about the nation’s direction to view him in a new light, mostly by convincing them he had aggressive plans to improve the economy — even as Obama conveyed little about goals of his own.

The memo is here.

Obama’s initial strategy of using surrogates and ads to drive down Romney was wise because it largely insulated the president from having to make the case himself. If he chooses to do so tonight, and fails, his campaign may not be salvageable.

This essay was adopted from The Transom, a daily email newsletter for political and media insiders, collecting news, notes, and thoughts from around the web.

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  1. Keith Rice

    From whose perspective would he be underperforming? I’ve considered him to be a buffoon for quite some time, it would be almost impossible for him to underperform in my eyes.

    But yes, I see him confidently reaching for a great moment only to fall as flat as the vacuous nature of his “vision”.

  2. Commodore BTC

    What’s hilarious is the MSM can’t help themselves and wait until after the debate to start spinning, so they end up inflating expectations for Obama. We’re already being told how good he is in this format. 

    I remember that health care town hall where Obama told the woman with the sick mother she might be better off taking a pain pill rather than getting treatment. 

  3. Mel Foil

    By now, Obama must think the strike zone is about six feet wide. That’s what his pitching coaches in the liberal press have done to him.

  4. robberberen

    All true.  But the “momentum reversal” narrative will hinge on Romney’s performance — not Obama’s.  In a setting where “real voters” are asking the questions, the media will have the power to take a single loose phrase from Romney and spin it as evidence that he simply cannot connect with normal people, face-to-face.

    Consider: In the first debate, Romney slipped and used the word “poor” instead of “low-income” or some similar politically-correct phrase.  He quickly caught the error and corrected himself.  In a traditional debate format, it did him no harm.  But in a town hall format, the result would have been different.  The camera would have returned to the “regular guy” Romney had just called “poor”, and the media would have their story.

    The danger is not Obama.  The danger is the setting, and the Media.

  5. Israel P.

    Blass is an announcer for the team that pretends to be the Pirates today.

  6. mask

    Obama is the master of the rambling non-answer and this habit will serve him ill in the townhall debate format.  He also doesn’t have a public plan for his second term – he only has the tired ideas he’s been peddling for the last 4 years (class warfare, social justice, fair share, etc).

    I also agree that he’ll try to come across as tough and overcompensate.

  7. schwastl

    As a Cardinals fan, Blass’s story reminds me of Rick Ankiel’s. And it makes me sad.

    <end baseball aside>

  8. mask
    Mel Foil: By now, Obama must think the strike zone is about six feet wide. That’s what his pitching coaches in the liberal press have done to him. · 20 minutes ago

    This is why the liberal reaction to the last presidential debate made me happy.  It was mostly Romney’s fault for being a lying liar and pretending to be a moderate instead of the reich wing extremist we know he is!  The Obama bubble only got more impenetrable.  And tonight we’ll see the results once again.

  9. Benjamin Glaser

    Blass was a far more accomplished pitcher than Ankiel.

    This diehard Pittsburgh Pirate fan loves listening to the dulcet tones of sweet Steve Blass’s voice for, unfortunately, home games only now.  He’s a great color guy. 

  10. Jason Fletcher
    I’ve said for a long time that Obama is the kind of coward who will only hit you when someone else is holding your arms. It’s showed up in his prior elections in which he essentially disqualified his opponents, his public forums where he can speak and his targets can’t (Supreme Court at SOTU), and the plethora of negative ads run by him and his allies. With Jim Lehrer moderating, Obama didn’t have anyone holding Romney’s arms (plus, Romney wanted to hit back), and he came off poorly as a result. Ben, given that, the wild card is Candy Crowley. Will she try to kneecap Romney (as Raddatz was more apt to do to Ryan), and will he let her? If so, if Romney ends up fighting with the moderator instead of Obama, Obama might just glide through and get the headlines he wants. But if Romney can stay focused on Obama and go mano-a-mano, then Obama will be in richly deserved trouble, and I agree with you in that case that he won’t do well.
  11. Nealfred

    Make a note of the time. Just thought I’d chip in. This debate will be more of the same.Obama may even perform worse than the first debate. The President is empty.

  12. genferei

    Ricochet - The Right People. The Right Tone. The Right Place.

    Um. OK. (“Where everybody knows your pseudonym…”)

  13. ConservativeWanderer
    genferei:Ricochet - The Right People. The Right Tone. The Right Place.

    Um. OK. (“Where everybody knows your pseudonym…”) · 0 minutes ago

    I actually kinda like it.

    When I was in seminary (before you ask, never finished it), they stressed both grouping points in threes, and using alliteration whenever possible.

    Both tend to make the information memorable, and that slogan is using both techniques.

  14. Doc

    I had coffee with a friend today.  I live in the swing state of VA.  She is low information voter who is not crazy about Obama but is afraid to vote for Romney because of his “war on women”, and she thinks he lied during the debate. She admitted that she didn’t watch the debate but read up on it after the fact.  Lovely.  I spoke to her at length and convinced her to vote for Romney.  I urged her to go do it immediately after we finished our coffee.  We can vote early here and I feared she would change her mind if she went home.  She laughed at me but promised to watch the debate tonight.  She said if she liked what she saw, she would vote go to the early voting center on Friday and vote for Romney.  

    Romney needs to deliver tonight.  It will not be easy because he will have two opponents rather than one, but the situation with my friend is probably representative of what is going on all over the country.  I am praying with everything I have that Romney closes the deal tonight.

  15. Doc
    Nealfred: Make a note of the time. Just thought I’d chip in. This debate will be more of the same.Obama may even perform worse than the first debate. The President is empty. · 9 minutes ago

    Time noted.  I want more than anything for you to be proven right.

  16. Valiuth

    The alliteration is a bit unimaginative…I mean they just use the word “Right” over and over and over again. 

    How about:

    Ricochet- A Conscientious, Conservative, Community. 

    Now that is alliteration. 

  17. Cunctator

    If I hear “millionaires and billionaires” and “corporate jet owners” yet again tonight, and Obama still retains some support post-debate, I will be saddened

  18. Jim Lakely

    Love the Steve Blass reference. Pretty apt, but I think of Obama more like Tuffy Rhodes.

    In the Cubs’ home opener in 1994, Tuffy hit three home runs against Mets ace Dwight Gooden. Lots of Rotisserie players quickly grabbed Tuffy off the waiver wire, thinking they had lucked into a stud. But Tuffy slugged just 5 more and batted .234 for the season. 

    That’s how it’s been for Obama. Victor Davis Hanson has written a lot about how the Obama we saw flop in the first debate is the Obama we’ve had all along. His latest on that theme is here.

    As an aside: Tuffy washed out of the bigs by the next season, but went on to a long and successful career in the Japanese leagues. Obama will do the same: Washing out of the big  leagues of American politics, but having a long and successful career on the lecture circuit.

  19. Lucy Pevensie

    I don’t read much legacy media, but I followed a link from RCP and landed on this gem of an opinion piece in the LA Times, of all places. I almost fell over when I saw the following sentence about why Romney won the first debate:

    So while there were obvious differences in presentation, there were also big differences in substance. And maybe those differences were just as persuasive, if not more so, than the candidates’ energy gap.

    In other words, maybe Romney won because people actually liked his proposals and ideas better than Obama’s.  If the LA Times can see this, maybe it is all over?

  20. Foxfier

    genferei:Ricochet - The Right People. The Right Tone. The Right Place.

    Um. OK. (“Where everybody knows your pseudonym…”) · 0 minutes ago

    I actually kinda like it.


    “Where everybody knows your ‘nym/ And they’re always glad you’re… Jim…”

    … um… Trying again.

    “Where everybody knows your nom And visitors are free to come,  You want to go where there will be  discussion polite and sane You want to got and get skin in the game.”

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