There’s an urban legend that when President Kennedy went to Berlin and wowed Germans by declaring “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”, what he actually said was “I am a jelly doughnut”.
While this claim is hotly disputed, the comedian Eddie Izzard uses the story to demonstrate that in the TV age, politics is “70 per cent how you look, 20 per cent how you sound and 10 per cent what you say”.
If Izzard’s rule were to apply to Wednesday night’s Presidential Debate in Denver, then Barack Obama was well and truly outclassed by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Throughout the debate, Governor Romney looked the hungrier of the two candidates.
From the moment the debate got underway, the Republican, who has been on the ropes in recent weeks, confidently looked the President in the eye as he went on the offensive.
By way of contrast, President Obama tended to look away from his opponent, fixing his gaze either on the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer or down at his notes. The impression was, unlike Governor Romney, he wasn’t up for the fight and therefore he couldn’t look at him defiantly in the eye.
As the veteran PBS broadcaster Jim Lehrer struggled to stamp his authority on the debate, Romney was more assertive than President Obama and simply steamrollered the moderator in order to get his points across.
Governor Romney looked relaxed and enthusiastic, while President Obama looked distant and weary.
While the Republican candidate repeatedly boiled his platform down to simple numbered points, President Obama came across as long winded and Professorial.
While Governor Romney adopted the role, tone and tactics of a Chief Prosecutor, President Obama looked increasingly like he was in the dock.
From the off, Mitt Romney politely but firmly challenged the President over the way he had portrayed Republican policies.
Accusing the President of misrepresenting him and his policies, Governor Romney insisted he was not committed, as the Democrat alleged, to squeezing the middle classes. Nor was he proposing 5 trillion in tax cuts. What he was advocating was cutting back on unnecessary government spending, while keeping taxes down and fostering economic growth.
The Republican outlined a five point plan for economic renewal which would see America more energy independent (creating four million jobs), advocate free trade by cracking down on China and opening up more trade in Latin America, would ensure people had the right skills to succeed and best schools, would result in a balanced budget and would champion small business to create jobs in America.
At several points during the debate, Governor Romney insisted the President’s policies were “not working” and he regularly trotted out the unemployment statistics (23 million Americans out of work), the increase in the number of Americans on food stamps (from 32 million to 47 million people in four years) and the rise in gas prices.
President Obama tried to counterpunch by flagging up the lack of detail behind the rhetoric from his challenger over the economic recovery plan but his attacks were often bogged down in detail.
He also failed to land a powerful punch when he tried to contrast the Reasonable Romney persona on display during the debate with the more Hawkish Romney on show during the Republican Primaries.
However the most mystifying thing about the President’s performance was his failure to raise the Governor’s infamous remarks at a fundraising dinner, casually dismissing the 47% of Americans he claimed would vote for Obama because they benefitted from welfare handouts.
This failure to go for the jugular and the President’s lacklustre performance overall enraged former Tip O’Neill aide and MSNBC presenter Chris Matthews who went on an extraordinary rant after the Denver debate.
“Where was Obama tonight?!” he bawled.
“There’s a hot debate going on in this country, and you know where it’s being held? Here, on this network, is where we’re having this debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in disarmed!”
Not surprisingly right wing commentators revelled in their candidate’s performance, with Rush Limbaugh claiming Romney had turned in one of the best debating performances he had ever witnessed.
“You know ladies and gentlemen, Obama came off even worse in his debate with Romney last night than he did in his debate with Clint Eastwood – and that’s saying something,” Limbaugh quipped in a reference to the movie star’s improvised interview with an empty chair at the Republican Convention.
In Ryder Cup parlance, Romney emerged out of the debate one up with two to play.
If anything, at the climax of the debate, one could have been forgiven for thinking Romney had taken on the look of Ian Poulter after he sank his crucial putt on the 18th in Saturday’s fourballs at Medinah to keep Europe’s hopes of retaining the Ryder Cup alive.
If President Obama is to avoid a European-style comeback from a challenger who looked dead and buried two weeks ago, he will need to significantly up his game on October 16 in the Town Hall format in Hempstead, New York.