What explained Obama’s recovered willingness to attack? He was back where he feels secure: alone on the stage, addressing a fevered crowd, performing a soliloquy of his own construction. Freed from the constraint of having to address a living, breathing opponent in real time, Obama could return to setting aflame the Republican straw men he carries around in his head.
In this case an additional piece of hay was added to the president’s battered Romney doll. Obama ascribed his failure on stage to the fact that he had not expected Romney to lie so effectively; he had not anticipated Romney to mask his extremism behind a “moderate” cloak. But here too the president was jousting with an apparition. Romney’s “lies” were nothing more than statements of fact in conflict with and inconvenient to liberals. And the “moderate” Romney is no different from the man who has been “pitching that plan for an entire year.” Romney’s domestic policy message, his “five point plan,” has been remarkably, even frustratingly, consistent over time. What it differs from is the bloodthirsty, avaricious, and ambitious demon with whom Obama has been fictively arguing.
Thus Biden had a heavy burden going into Thursday’s vice presidential debate. The left was outraged at Obama’s failure. It was up to the vice president to calm their fears and regain their enthusiasm. His clownish and angry performance was catnip to the Democratic base. But he also ran the risk of alienating independents and swing voters who are distressed at the economic condition of the country and are looking for specific solutions to the twin crises of jobs and deficits. For Biden’s performance, like Obama’s, was grounded in the idea that Republicans like Romney and Ryan are monsters—an idea that could not withstand examination in the light of Ryan’s strong, reasoned, confident showing.