Elections
President Barack Obama looks over to a group of supporters after walking off stage at a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) President Barack Obama looks over to a group of supporters after walking off stage at a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)  

Obama’s staffers changed election strategy during Denver debate

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

The president’s top campaign staffers changed his re-election strategy while he was still on the debate-podium during his losing debate against Gov. Mitt Romney, according to an article in The New York Times.

“On the conference call convened by aides in Denver and Chicago even as the candidates were still on stage … they reversed a longstanding strategic decision,” without the president’s involvement, according to the Oct. 8 article.

“At the start of the campaign they had decided to attack Mr. Romney as a committed conservative rather than a flip-flopper, but now they decided to use his debate statements to argue that he was reinventing himself,” the article said.

The Times’ insider account paints a sharply different picture of Obama from that favored by him and his supporters, who prefer to portray Obama as the smartest man in the room.

The subsequent shift in his campaign strategy suggests that Obama has agreed with his staffers — and with polling data — that he badly lost the Denver face-off.

Since the mid-debate conference-call, the campaign has used flacks, surrogates and TV ads to portray Romney as a serial liar who should not be trusted with the Presidency.

Those messages are increasingly aggressive and negative — and risky, because they may alienate some of remaining uncommitted voters. Those uncommitted voters tend to be non-ideological people who say they dislike negative ads.

That’s the risk President Barack Obama was trying to avoid by adopting a cautious and calm demeanor during the Denver debate.

The new strategy likely will produce some fireworks during the next debate between Obama and Romney on Oct. 16. That will be a town-hall event on territory very favorable to Obama — Hofstra University in blue-state New York.

Immediately after the Denver debate, Obama did not consider the face-off to be as bad for him as it was subsequently portrayed, according to The New York Times’ article. “Mr. Obama did not fully realize as he walked off the stage just how badly it had gone, but aides said he resolved to step up his game,” said the article.

That version is a rough match with a story from Politico, whose Oct. 5 post-debate article describing Obama’s assessment was also based on conversations with Obama’s aides.

“At first, Obama didn’t think his performance was a complete disaster,” said the article, which paints a rosier picture of Obama’s campaign than the Times’ article.

According to the Times’ account, Obama did not participate in the top-level call because he was still on the stage.

The call included his top campaign advisors, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, as well as Jim Messina and Stephanie Cutter, his campaign manger and deputy deputy manager.

However, the Politico account says the new anti-Romney strategy was developed by Obama and his aides the day after the debate.

“He huddled with his inner circle — David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett, Anita Dunn, Ron Klain and Jim Messina — and settled on the theme they hammered all of Thursday [Oct. 4] — a direct attack on Romney that accused him of out-and-out lying on his tax-cut claims and portrayed the former Massachusetts governor as a two-faced imposter willing to say anything to win.”

The two articles’ descriptions of Obama’s self-confidence match the president’s much-reported assessment of his own abilities.

In 2008, for example, he boasted to his political director, Patrick Gaspard, that “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters … and I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

But the Denver loss seems to have dented Obama’s confidence, and cracked that of his supporters.

Their concerns have been boosted by polls taken after Romney scored a stunning upset over Obama during the Denver debate.