The problem, from Obama’s point of view, is that his own programs frequently do not add up. This was painfully evident as he struggled to make these sound plausible. While he could lambast Romney for failing to offer specifics, his own bill of particulars was woefully lacking.
Take the issue of reducing the deficit. Once more the president claimed that he had a plan for reducing government spending by $4 trillion. But then he punted the ball. Instead of explaining his plan, he suggested that viewers go online to fill in the details.
If they do, they will find that this is the same scheme I discussed in a previous column. At its heart is a proposal to save $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan that no one intends to spend. In other words, it is a phony plan that even his supporters have described as depending on “funny money.”
So why did he do this? There are several possible reasons. One is that he does not want the public to know he has no real plans for curtailing our unsustainable deficits. Another is that he does not understand the details of his policy. A third is that he was flummoxed by Romney’s assertive questioning.
Obama was certainly off his game when he confronted by his challenger. Despite four years in office, he clearly did not have as good a grasp of the issues as his opponent. As a result, when called out on his shortcomings, he fell back on a grab bag of stale talking points.
He also resorted to flogging trivial correctives for a massive predicament. Thus, he argued that eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and private plane owners would reduce the budget shortfall. The trouble with these adjustments is that while they would save less than $10 billion, we are annually in the hole for well over a trillion.
But the real dilemma Obama faced during the debate was more subtle — and more intractable. This was his demeanor. Many commentators have noted that the president rarely looked at Romney as they talked. For the most part, his eyes were on the podium or the moderator.
Worse still, Obama seemed small and unpresidential. Manifestly uncomfortable when being confronted by an assertive rival, it looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. Dare I say it — at times he even appeared to be intimidated by his more self-assured foe.
This was not good! But what made it disastrous is that one of Obama’s greatest strengths has been his unflappability. Others might be thrown off stride by unexpected events, but he always maintained his equanimity. The unspoken message was that whatever the challenge, he could master it.
What is more, thanks to his self-possession, the most egregious nonsense generally sounded reasonable. This was because listeners responded more to his body language than his words. Plainly almost anything he said seemed true because he was so comfortable saying it.
This advantage deserted him last Wednesday. Absent his usual swagger, people could see through the shallowness of his responses. His supporters might not like it, but even they could recognize a pastiche of focus-group tested shibboleths, as opposed to a deep understanding of the trials facing our nation.
It is too soon to say what effect Obama’s meltdown will have on the election. His fans will surely forgive him whatever weaknesses he displayed, while his detractors will gloat as his ineptitude.
But what of the moderates? What lessons will they draw from this unexpected turn of events?
Michelle Obama looked worried — and she should be!
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.