Commentary: Why Obama Wasn't More Aggressive in the First Debate

The president is a cool and measured leader in a modern media world that often craves quick, loud and confrontational sound bites.

Posted: 10/04/2012 04:31 AM EDT
Commentary: Why Obama Wasn't More Aggressive In the First Debate

Here we go again. President Obama has a habit of being so calm, cool and collected that it frustrates his own supporters. It happened four years ago in the Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. It happened again in the 2008 general election campaign against John McCain. And it happened during the 2010 debate over health care reform.

In each case, pundits and critics complained the president wasn't being aggressive enough in his own defense. I admit it, I was one of those critics myself. I like a good fight, and I like a politician who likes to fight. But in each case, I was wrong, and Obama won in the end.

Last night's debate was another one of those frustrating moments. For the better half of 90 minutes, Mitt Romney attacked the president, distorted the president's record and lied about his own record.

Fact checkers are already having a field day responding to Romney's false allegations, including the patently false claim that Obama has created an "unelected board" of bureaucrats to tell people what kind of health care treatments they can have.  But there were two other people on stage last night, and neither of them — moderator Jim Lehrer or President Obama — effectively responded to Romney's high-speed misinformation campaign.

In the entire debate, no one mentioned Romney's comment about the 47 percent of Americans who he thinks are moochers. No one mentioned Romney's record at Bain Capital. No one mentioned Romney's infamous New York Times op-ed, Let Detroit Go Bankrupt. And no one mentioned Romney's jobs record as governor of a state that ranked 47th out of 50 in job creation.

In his opening remarks, Obama wisely talked about inheriting "the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." But he never once mentioned President Bush during this segment. In fact, Bush's name came up only once in the entire debate, and that was a brief reference to the Bush tax cuts.

As I watched the debate, I was practically screaming at the television for Obama to fight back and go on the offensive. And when Romney repeated his lame 5-point "plan" for job creation that he presented at the Republican Convention in Tampa, I was begging for Lehrer or Obama to ask for specifics.

Here's Romney's first point. "Get us energy independent." He then added, "That creates about four million jobs." Actually, that creates about 4 million questions, starting with how will you do it. His other points were no more specific — open up trade, make sure people have skills, balance the budget and champion small business. That's not a plan. That's a set of five lofty goals with no specifics. But he got away with it because Lehrer didn't ask any follow-up questions and Obama didn't challenge him on it.

Romney also failed to explain how he would balance the budget while adding $716 billion in spending to Medicare, increasing defense spending and repealing Obamacare, all of which he promised to do last night. Contrary to popular belief, repealing Obamacare itself would add $109 billion to the deficit. So the only spending cut Mitt Romney mentioned last night was to wipe out funding for Big Bird and PBS, which would save the government a whopping $450 million a year, less than one percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. That's not leadership. That's trickery.

After watching all those Romney lies slip by without a challenge from the moderator or the president, many Obama supporters took to Twitter to express their frustration. Those who wanted to see a fight were understandably disappointed. Why didn't Obama fight back? The facts were on his side.

But debates don't elect presidents. They rarely move the polls enough to shift the outcome of an election, especially for a candidate who is trailing as far behind as Romney has been lately. And maybe one silver lining is that last night's debate might serve as a wake up call to the Obama campaign and their supporters that they can't just sit on their lead until Nov. 6. The best defense is a good offense.

Maybe he doesn't want to come across as an angry Black man, or maybe it's just his even-tempered nature. Whatever the case, Obama, either by temperament or strategic design, has never been the type of politician to get in the other guy's face and "let him have it." He's a cool, measured, almost unflappable leader in a modern media world that often craves quick, loud and confrontational sound bites. But whether he's hunting down Osama bin Laden or plotting the biggest health care reform in 50 years, his long game usually works. There's a reason they call him "no drama Obama."

Every time he does this in a high pressure moment, he scares the hell out of his supporters. But, somehow, when all the smoke clears, he usually wins.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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