You may recall that a few weeks back, I declared that the presidential election was over, as a result of Mitt Romney’s leaked 47 percent video. For a few minutes, that call looked quite smart. Barack Obama's campaign turned the video into an attack ad, the Romney campaign was fumbling for an explanation, and Obama widened his lead in the polls.
Then came last week’s debate, where President Obama sleepwalked in and got his Etch A Sketch vigorously shaken. Romney has taken a narrow lead in the national polls on the strength of his performance.
But it’s not yet time for me to eat crow. I think.
First, though Andrew Sullivan has chosen to enter Total Freakout Mode, it’s clear that Obama is still the favorite to win the election. As of 3 p.m. today, Intrade had Romney at a 39 percent chance to win: far higher than he was trading a week ago, but still behind.
Second, I still don’t think Romney has been hit with the brunt of the 47 percent video. The reason the video is so damaging is not that it led to a bad initial news cycle, but that it can be replayed over and over, including in paid media, reinforcing the message that Romney can't be trusted to pursue policies that benefit the middle class.
But Obama has to make the argument. One of the president’s biggest failures in last week’s debate was not doing so: not mentioning the 47 percent remarks even once, and generally not arguing that Romney’s rhetoric, for example on taxes, is incompatible with his past statements and positions.
Obama has not normally been as incompetent an advocate for himself as he was last week. The assumption that he will return to form and bring the fight in the next debates is why the projections show Obama likely to win even as Romney leads the polls.
The only caveat is that maybe that’s wrong, and Obama really has given up on defending his record. Last week’s debate wasn’t Obama’s first puzzlingly weak presentation of the campaign; it was his second, after his convention speech. Obama’s demeanor screams that he is tired, fed up and out of ideas, probably because he is.
He’s also a talented politician, and he should be able to fake some passion and some energy for fixing the U.S. jobs crisis, even for just a month. He should also be capable of channeling his evident contempt for Romney into attacks on his credibility, instead of acting as if it’s beneath his dignity to engage with his opponent at all.
If Obama can’t or won’t do that, and he throws the next two debates like he threw the first, then it will be time for me to eat crow, and Sullivan will be proved right.
But that’s not going to happen. I’m pretty sure.
Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.