OK, cards on the table: I’m a big Obama fan. I desperately hope he wins next month, and I’m reasonably confident he will. But even to my biased eye, he clearly put in the weaker performance of last night’s debate. He knew his stuff, and had plenty of good points, but threw them out in such a way that none of them really stuck. ‘Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?’ would have been a great line had it not been smuggled out at the end of an overlong response. The President’s answers were just too waffling to make an impact.

It’s very rare that I watch Obama speak and think ‘I could’ve said something better’. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever happened before. But it did a few times last night. I know that, as the Americans say, it’s always easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but why didn’t he — when Romney attacked him for not getting bipartisan support for his healthcare reforms — say ‘I’d love to have got some Republican votes, but it’s kind of hard when they say their top priority is denying me a second term, instead of helping the millions of hard-working families around the country’? Congress is massively unpopular, and the Republican Party is not much better off, so taking a shot at both is hardly a risky strategy. And when Romney touted his time as Governor of Massachusetts to prove his own bipartisan credentials, why didn’t Obama hit back with a quote from one of the many Massachusetts legislators who say he was rubbish? He could’ve just picked one from his own campaign ad.

And earlier in the debate, why did Obama let Romney be the only one to talk about growing the economy to reduce the deficit? Why didn’t he respond with ‘Governor Romney is right that we’ve got to grow the economy, but the way to do that isn’t by cutting taxes for millionaires, it’s by investing in American workers, just like we did with the auto industry’? The message might be a bit Ed Balls-y, but it’s also pretty popular — as the Obama camp clearly realises, having made it a big theme of their convention. Indeed, the fact that Obama didn’t deliver a stand-out line about saving General Motors (perhaps contrasting it with one of his favourite Romney lines: ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt’) is almost hard to believe.

I doubt last night’s debate will change the state of the race much — Obama’s still the clear favourite, and that’s not just wishful thinking on my part. But I do hope the President turns up to the next two debates far more engaged and gives far more focused answers. If only he’d managed that last night, we’d all be talking instead about how silly Mitt Romney looked when he said ‘I love Big Bird’.

Tags: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, presidential debates, US politics