It’s good for democracy when politicians are in the moment, answering the questions that are asked, interacting with audiences and interviewers. A little more of that would have been nice in this week's presidential debate.
But spontaneity entails risk, as both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden demonstrated on Thursday when they took ill-advised words from others and made them their own. The upshot: unforced errors that handed ammunition to Team Romney and Republicans.
For Obama, it was when comedian Jon Stewart — in a mostly serious interview — asked about the administration’s changing explanations of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. "I would say and even you would admit it was not the optimal response — at least to the American people as far as all of us being on the same page," Stewart said.
"Here is what I will say, if four Americans get killed it is not optimal," Obama replied. "And we are going to fix it, all of it. And what happens during the course of a presidency, you know the government is a big operation at any given time, something screws up and you make sure you find out what's broken and you fix it."
Obama not only took Stewart’s word, he applied it to the killings, as opposed to the administration response to them. Twitter and the GOP erupted over the comment, as did Sen. John McCain. Obama “has never known what these kinds of tragedies are about,” McCain said Thursday night on Fox News. “I can't even get angry. It's just so inappropriate. And I'm sure that families of those brave Americans are not amused."
Some of the families have said they don’t want their relatives’ deaths to become part of the campaign debate. But one mother criticized Obama on Friday. "How can you say somebody being killed is not very optimal? I don't think the president has the right idea of the English language," Pat Smith, mother of slain State Department official Sean Smith, told Britain's Daily Mail.
Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan took the high road when asked about the Stewart interview on Friday. “Look, these deaths in Libya were a tragedy. I’m sure the president mourns those deaths,” he said on WTMJ radio in Milwaukee, before launching into a critique of the administration’s “shifting” stories on what happened and its “unraveling” foreign policy.
Obama was emotional about the deaths in this week’s town hall debate and managed a “win” on Libya when GOP nominee Mitt Romney got wrong when he had first referred to the violence as an act of terror. But Obama is vulnerable on Libya, and it would be surprising if Romney did not allude to “optimal” during the pair’s debate Monday on foreign policy.
Biden offered up more fodder to those inclined to think his offhand rhetoric goes too far. He was describing Ryan’s book about rising conservative leaders, Young Guns, when a man shouted: "They have guns with no bullets!" Biden’s response: "Unfortunately, the bullets are aimed at you." The crowd laughed and Republicans pounced.
It was almost an exact repeat of what happened in August in Danville, Va., when Biden was attacking GOP economic and regulatory policies. He told a largely black audience that Republicans wanted to “unchain Wall Street,” then added, to laughter: “They’re going to put y'all back in chains.” Later, he said Republicans often talk about regulatory “shackles.” “I’m using their own words,” he said.
These comments by Obama and Biden won’t necessarily influence the outcome of the election, and Romney and Ryan certainly have endured their share of self-inflicted injuries. Still, it’s surprising to see seasoned veterans like Biden and Obama creating new problems for themselves — even small ones — in the homestretch of a toss-up race.