Debate Pundits: Where Was Obama?

Journal-isms: "You have the president's supporters saying he just got spanked," John King said.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

If the progressive cable news channel MSNBC represents President Obama’s base, then that base was stunned by the president’s lackluster debate performance in his first face-off with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Wednesday night.

Competitor CNN’s flash poll of registered voters who watched the debate found that 67 percent said Romney won, while only 25 percent chose Obama. Such a departure from the usual close split between the two candidates means “you have the president’s supporters saying he just got spanked,” CNN’s John King told viewers.

“Where was Obama tonight?” Chris Matthews asked on MSNBC. “He should watch — well, not just ‘Hardball,’ Rachel [Maddow], he should watch you, he should watch the Rev. Al [Sharpton], he should watch Lawrence [O’Donnell], he would learn something about this debate. There’s a hot debate going on in this country. Do you know where it’s being held? Here on this network is where we’re having the debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed. What was Romney doing? He was winning. If he (Obama) does five more of these nights, forget it.”

Watching cable news is not Obama’s favorite pastime. Michael Lewis, who recently spent hours with the president for a lengthy Vanity Fair piece, told NPR interviewer Terry Gross last month that Obama has “. . . decided that nothing on cable news is worth listening to. He doesn’t watch it. He thinks it’s totally toxic, like it affects your brain, and he won’t turn on the TV.

The MSNBC pundits said the president seemed to view the debate as something to be endured, and to his detriment, he took pains not to detract from looking “presidential.”

Host Rachel Maddow ticked off the issues that Obama failed to raise: Romney’s secretly videotaped comment that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes and consider themselves victims, immigration, union rights, abortion, women’s rights, the Bain Capital private equity firm Romney headed and Romney’s jobs record in Massachusetts.

They weren’t the only missing questions. In the 90 minutes of discussion of domestic policy, it seemed as though no concerns surfaced from the journalist of color associations, which submitted questions to the Commission on Presidential Debates that were presumably forwarded to moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.

The National Association of Black Journalists’ suggested topics were unemployment and the economy, particularly black joblessness; the Affordable Health Care Act; education; crime and law enforcement, specifically the stop-and-frisk laws; and the nation’s changing demographics. The questions from the Hispanic and Asian American journalists associations emphasized immigration and jobs; those from the Native American journalists were specific to American Indians.

Lehrer stuck to questions about the economy, the budget, tax plans and the president’s health care plan, which Obama said he did not mind being nicknamed “Obamacare.” Not that Lehrer had much control of the debate or a chance to get in many questions. Former ABC anchor Carole Simpson, who moderated the 1992 presidential debate among Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and independent H. Ross Perot, tweeted, “Oh, Barack. What happened to you? And Jim Lehrer, what happened to you? You lost control of the debate. A change has gotta come and soon.”