I know how Obama feels.

Or in the words of the acknowledged champion debater and explainer, Bill Clinton, “I feel his pain.”

Why and how can I make such a claim? Because I was a political candidate who had the opportunity to debate my opponent several times in front of live TV cameras.

I understand how it feels during a debate when things are not going well. Or afterwards, when I thought I had done well and then saw my opponent’s supporters gathering around, beaming with genuine excitement, to congratulate him for his winning effort.

I identified with President Obama last week when William Leuchtenburg, leading historian of the presidency, shared with me his thoughts about Obama’s debate performance against Mitt Romney.  Leuchtenburg noted that every media observer opined that Obama “did badly.”

“And,” said Leuchtenburg, “he did. Obama unfortunately seemed listless.”
In discussing the economy, Obama could have asserted a strong claim that he brought the country from the brink of disaster to a moderate recovery.

However, as Leuchtenburg observed, when challenged by Romney, Obama was unable or unwilling to fight back. 

“Twice Romney was able to accuse Obama of favoring a trickle-down theory. That is a phrase that has been used against Republicans going all the way back to the 19th century. Jim Lehrer asked him directly, ‘What about this trickle down comment, Mr. President?’ Instead of digging in and seizing upon this opportunity, Obama went off on a recital that seemed canned.”

My thoughts went back to my debate experience. When I was a newcomer and my opponent was better known, my advisers told me I had to be aggressive and “come on strong.”

Later, when the polls showed me ahead, they told me I had to be careful not to come across as unlikable and not make any big mistakes.

I asked Leuchtenburg if he thought Obama’s advisors had given some of that same advice and whether an effort to “protect his likeability” might explain Obama’s lackluster performance.

“He may not have lost it,” said Leuchtenburg, “but he may have diminished it, when he was not speaking, looking almost petulant, barely able to control his anger at times, and only rarely flashing that wonderful smile and showing the charm that won so many millions of voters to him four years ago.”

“What disappointed supporters more is that he let Romney get away with so many misstatements. No mention of the 47 percent gaffe, no mention of offshore Caribbean retreats for people of wealth, and no mention that Romney would have let the auto plants go down the drain. These are just three of the many instances he passed by opportunities to carry the fight to Romney.”

When I asked Leuchtenburg if there was a reason for passing these opportunities by, he said, “I suspect his advisors were telling him the most important thing for him, particularly since he has the advantage of incumbency, is to look presidential. Sometimes that is bad advice as Tom Dewey discovered in 1948, to appear to be above the fray, not to appear to be mean-spirited, because it seemed to drain much of the energy that he undoubtedly has. Question is now, whether in the next debate, he can once again show the kind of exuberance and charm that he did four years ago.”

What impact will the debate have on election results?

“Most of the time, says Leuchtenburg, “debate results do not make a difference. But in a close race like this, it might.”

Finally, while the incumbent usually has an advantage in his contest for reelection, the challenger often does better in the first debate because he can attack the incumbent’s record. And the incumbents have often rallied from poor first debate performances and done much better in the subsequent ones.

Obama supporters can hope.