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Despite President Obama's celebrated gift for oratory, the Obama supporters least surprised by his underwhelming performance against Mitt Romney may have been two of his top advisers.
Senior strategists David Plouffe and David Axelrod have long doubted Obama's debating skills. Their concerns date back to the 2008 presidential campaign, as Plouffe wrote in his book, The Audacity to Win. He put it plainly: "Historically, Obama was not a strong debater."
Plouffe describes in the book the campaign's efforts to "work him harder" in Obama's preparation for a debate during the Democratic primaries:
"These sessions did not inspire a great deal of confidence. Obama thought the whole exercise of boiling down complex answers into thirty- or sixty-second sound bites was silly and rewarded glibness, not depth and complexity. It was definitely going to be a challenging night. A big part of managing debate coverage was setting and then meeting expectations. We tried to set the bar as low as possible so it would be easier to surpass."
As Obama took the stage for the debate, Plouffe wrote, Axelrod told him and campaign adviser Robert Gibbs: "This could be an unmitigated disaster."
It wasn't. The rest, of course, is history. But the history of Obama's lackluster showings in the format repeated itself against Romney on Wednesday night.
Axelrod all but acknowledged as much to reporters in a call Thursday morning. Asked to respond to criticism of Obama's body language, including that he appeared listless, Axelrod said, "I'm not a theater critic, and I'm not going to jump into that particular pool."
But then he basically did just that:
"He didn't view it perhaps as much as Gov. Romney did, as a performance. ... That's not the president's strong suit in these events. I'm sure that he will consider his approach going forward."
Axelrod dismissed questions about whether Obama needed more thorough debate preparation, which Obama had once been loath to embrace in 2008, according to Plouffe's book.
Axelrod said he saw no need for the president to significantly change his strategy, but signaled that the president would be more forceful in the next debate, on Oct. 16:
"The thing that the president hoped to avoid was a situation where you had two politicians standing there insulting each other. ... But we have to strike a balance. You can't allow someone to stand there and basically manhandle the truth about their own record and ideas, and about yours, and not deal with that."
Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg had this response:
"The Obama campaign's conference call today was just like the President's performance last night. The campaign, like the President, offered no defense of the President's first term record or vision for a second term, and instead, offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements, and lies about Governor Romney's record."