Perhaps the most commonly asked question in the wake of last night’s debate is, What the hell was wrong with Barack Obama?
Some ideas are more plausible than others. My sense is that, to a significant degree, Romney capitalized on an almost structural flaw of Barack-Obama-as-candidate: his unwillingness (and I’d guess at this point inability) to show ill temper in front of a national audience. Barack Obama has no doubt spent much of his life perfecting his calm, reasonable, unobtrusive mien. He’s done all he has the power to do not to be the Angry Black Man. For a person of color — especially of his generation — he’s hardly alone.
In many ways, Obama’s mastery of calming any conscious, or subconscious, worries that he’s angry has been a key asset. He’s the first African American president! But when he’s confronted with the kind of aggression and dishonesty that Romney showed last night, he tends to shy from pushing back with equal vigor and confidence. We see smirks and hear tightly controlled undercurrents of anger in his responses, but nothing that would strike an uninformed observer as evidence that Obama will not be pushed around. (For more on this, I recommend Jonathan Glick, who wonders if the rightwing media’s recent flop Obama “scandal” video wasn’t quite the failure we first thought.)
But if you check out the video above, which is from earlier today, you’ll see there’s probably another reason the President was so jarred — he didn’t expect Romney to diverge so much from his campaign thus far and, as Jonathan Chait put it, reassume his earlier Massachusetts moderate form. If this is indeed the case, and not simply the tactic the Obama team chose today in an attempt to mitigate the damage, that’s pretty damning. Mitt Romney is many things, but stubbornly consistent is not one of them.