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SPOTLIGHT
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Obama fighting the incumbent's curse

Published on -10/9/2012, 10:31 AM

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Walter Mondale won his first debate against Ronald Reagan in 1980.

John Kerry won his first debate against George W. Bush.

Mitt Romney won his first debate against Barack Obama.

When you win, you get lots of congratulations. When you lose, you get lots of advice. President Obama, I am absolutely certain, is getting lots of advice. The expectations for Romney will be higher in the next debate. Obama will be more passionate, more assertive and more engaged.

So why wasn't he that way on Wednesday night? Lots of reasons. Hindsight is 20/20.

My guess, watching last night's debate, is that Obama had taken the Hippocratic oath. He didn't want to "stoop" to the level of his opponent (challengers always get a bump from being on the same stage as the president), so he just plain avoided any tough criticism (say, of Romney's support for the Wall Street bailout and not for the auto industry bailout, or of his statement that the 47 percent of the electorate who depend on government entitlements (like seniors and veterans and the disabled) are "victims" who don't take "responsibility." But in almost every debate, the more aggressive candidate is seen as the winner if he doesn't go way over the top. Obama debated like a guy who has a bigger lead than he has.

And there's more. As a guy who has made some pretty big gaffes, Romney came in with low expectations and beat them. Obama, supposedly the great communicator, came in with high expectations even though his oratorical skills tend to shine in front of huge audiences and not when he's straight into the camera. Romney has debated dozens of times in the past year. The president hasn't debated in four years.

The polls will almost certainly give Romney a bump.

This will definitely help him raise money. But there are many conservatives who are overplaying their hands here, claiming this debate was a game changer the way Bush's second debate against Michael Dukakis was ("if someone raped and killed your wife...") and Reagan's only debate against Carter was ("there you go again ..."). If conservatives push hard enough, they could land Romney in the same position Obama was in this time: facing expectations he can't meet while coming under even greater scrutiny for his statements.

Losing the first debate is a problem that can be turned around -- as both Reagan and George W. Bush did. Getting creamed in the second or only debate -- as Carter and Dukakis did -- is far more likely to be fatal.

So, Romney supporters: Don't pick out those White House curtains yet.

Obama supporters: Don't give up on your man.

Romney advisers: Tell your friends to tone down the rhetoric.

Obama advisers: Don't be afraid to speak truth to power. The president deserves to be criticized, hard as that is to do when you're sitting in a room with the president of the United States.

And for those who spend their time criticizing the "liberal media," take a listen to what MSNBC had to say last night. Their criticism of the president was as over the top as the boasts and predictions many conservatives are making today.

For all of the email I've been getting today -- and I've been getting plenty -- no one has said they've changed their mind about who to vote for. Disappointed or not, Obama has a solid command of his base. And if he didn't close the deal with swing voters last night (and he certainly didn't), he also didn't liberate Poland, as Gerald Ford did in 1976. If you watched last night, I can't imagine you won't want to see what happens in the next episode.

Bottom line: Stay tuned.

Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.

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