Obama’s staffers changed election strategy during Denver debate

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

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.

Gallup, for example, showed that Obama’s five-point lead evaporated in the three days after the debate, leaving both candidates tied at 47 percent.

At a Oct. 7 fund-raiser featuring performances by several culture-industry entertainers, Obama tried to reassure donors by portraying his defeat as a rare lapse on his part.

“These guys — and everybody here — are just incredible professionals. … They just perform flawlessly night after night.”

“I can’t always say the same,” he added after a moment, prompting laughs from his supporters.

Later during in the same event, held at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theater, he tried to reassure nervous supporters that he won in 2008 despite some errors.

“Back in 2008 … we made all kinds of mistakes. We goofed up. I goofed up,” he said, without identifying his error.

“Even with all the things we had going for us — all the way that things just kind of converged, 47 percent of the country still didn’t vote for me. … I just want to point that out.”

Follow Neil on Twitter