President Obama’s comparatively weak performance against Mitt Romney last night fits a pattern in presidential debates. Incumbent presidents almost always lose the first debate.
That certainly was the case with George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. In recent times, only Bill Clinton is the exception.
Looking further back, my recollection is that Jimmy Carter struggled in his debate in 1980. In 1976, though, Gerald Ford did well in his first debate. He committed his Poland gaffe in the second debate.
There’s an obvious explanation for why the incumbent typically stumbles the first time out of the box. Presidents reside in a bubble, surrounded by yes-men, and are rarely required to defend their record and their poliices. In Barack Obama’s case, this state of affairs did not begin with his presidency; it extends far back into his golden past.
The good news for Obama is that, historically, the president is forgiven for one lost debate. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both rallied in later debates and undid the damage from the first debate. Bush didn’t necessarily outdebate John Kerry to an appreciable degree in the subsequent debates, but he certainly hung in there with him, and that was enough.
Will Obama follow this pattern? Assuming that he lost ground with voters last night, can he make it up by holding his own in the next two?
First, of course, Obama must hang in there with Romney in the remaining debates. It’s plausible to think that he can. As Scott wrote this morning, Obama is a competitive guy who has his Chicago cornermen and the refs working overtime to make him a winner. And last night’s events should rouse him from his bubble, as Bush and Reagan were roused.
But Mitt Romney will have a say too. Others may disagree, but I think last night was about Romney being excellent rather than Obama being poor. If Romney keeps bringing it like he did last night, Obama may continue to struggle.
The next debate is about foreign policy. There is much Romney can “bring” in this realm. And, despite what happened last night, Obama may need to meet high expectations, since foreign policy supposedly is the one area where he has been a successful president.
Moreover, even if Obama rallies, the electorate may not be quick to forgive his defeat in the first debate. Voters liked Reagan and wanted to reelect him. After the first debate, they merely wanted to see enough to justify giving him their vote.
This wasn’t true of Bush. However, he was more popular than Obama is.
Doubts about Obama run deep. To the extent they were confirmed last night, two subsequent debates in which he holds his own may not be good enough. He may need at least one clear win.