It was as if the candidates swapped bodies before they went out onstage. The president became the Mitt Romney caricature the Obama campaign has created through millions of dollars of advertising: an elitist who has no idea what the middle class is going through. And Mitt Romney became the great communicator who understands the suffering and anxiety of ordinary Americans and knows how to relieve it.
There is no question that Mitt Romney won the debate on points -- his answers were crisp and coherent, while Obama's were slow, rambling and too much in the policy weeds to resonate with most listeners. But the bigger problem for Obama was his manner. He couldn't look Romney in the eye, spent more time looking down than he did trying to connect with the audience and looked annoyed at having to answer questions.
Obama reminded many of President George H. W. Bush when Bush looked at his watch during a town hall debate in 1992. Unfair or not, observers at the time thought President Bush looked like he didn't want to be there and thought he had better things to do than answer questions for the electorate. Some people thought that was the moment when President Bush lost his re-election bid -- and Wednesday's debate could be the moment when Obama lost his.
The media were stunned by Obama's performance. But anyone who watched his debates with Hillary Clinton in 2008 should know that Obama is not quick on his feet. The difference between 2008 and today is that Obama is no longer the new, fresh face that people thought might actually change politics and bring Americans together. He's spent much of the last four years -- and all of his campaign dollars -- trying to divide the country and demonize his opponents. He came across as mean and angry during the debate, while Romney came across as caring and passionate.
Certainly the substance of the candidates' positions on issues was an important factor in the debate as well. Obama reiterated his core belief that government is the engine that drives America and can create jobs and take care of people.
Romney, on the other hand, said that creating jobs can best be accomplished by freeing the private sector from anxiety that their taxes will rise and costs to hire new employees will increase, due to everything from Obamacare to burdensome overregulation. And Romney said that he wants to make sure "that those people who are less fortunate and can't care for themselves are cared for by one another."
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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