WASHINGTON — He doesn’t face tough questions from the press very often. He rarely jousts with congressional Democrats, let alone his Republican critics.
Now President Barack Obama’s wobbly performance against Mitt Romney at their first debate is raising questions about wheth-er he’s been too sheltered by a White House that keeps him away from skeptical audiences and minimizes confrontation.
Obama’s 2008 opponent, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, said Obama’s lackluster performance at Wednesday’s debate in Denver stemmed from four years of dealing with an “adoring media.” Other political observers said it’s a result of Obama’s relative isolation in Washington: He prefers interviews with select journalists to unpredictable press conferences, and he doesn’t mix much with members of Congress or parry and thrust with critics who could challenge his assertions.
“He’s a guy who has no pushback on anything, ever,” said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst and editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report. “He’s not doing press conferences, he’s got little interaction with members of Congress and he’s surrounded with acolytes. I think it showed.”
Obama has held fewer news conferences and question-and-answer sessions with reporters than his recent predecessors, according to statistics compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political science professor.
She noted that former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton engaged more often in short question-and-answer sessions with reporters, “knowing that they’d have to deliver answers to questions that they might not have anticipated.”
The White House pushed back on suggestions that Obama had gone “soft” as a result of his carefully controlled press strategy and a four-year break from debates.
“Over the course of his presidency he’s done innumerable interviews and press conferences and TV interviews,” said senior adviser David Plouffe. “The president wanted to make a case about where we are in the country, where we need to go, have a dialogue with the American people about his ideas, how those contrast with Gov. Romney.”
He suggested that instead, reporters were “itching to write the Romney comeback story, so it was already leaning in that direction.”
But campaign officials said Thursday that they planned a “hard look” at Obama’s debate performance.
“It’s like a playoff in sports. You evaluate after every contest and you make adjustments,” senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said, adding, “I think there are some strategic changes that have to be made, and we’ll make them.”
Obama aides concede the president must find a crisper way to sell his agenda and counter his opponent without getting lost in the weeds.
The heart of his new message with less than five weeks to go: Romney is a liar. Expect that theme — expressed in softer terms from the president than from his team — to drive Obama’s advertising and messaging for days.
“Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth,” Obama declared in his first post-debate appearance, a Thursday rally in Denver. He displayed an energy that was conspicuously absent in the debate.
The Associated Press contributed.