Adjustments will have to be made in President Obama's debate strategy, his advisers said Thursday, the morning after the president stumbled in his first showdown with Mitt Romney.
David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign strategist, said they are going to take "a hard look" at Obama’s debate performance and that they’ll “have to make some judgments about where to draw the lines in these debates and how to use our time.”
Obama aides told The Hill that the president will look to be more aggressive in the next debate — scheduled for Oct. 16 in Hofstra, N.Y. — by launching a more full-throttle attack when he believes Romney isn't telling the truth.
The aides said that in the coming weeks, Obama and the campaign will be making a credibility argument against Romney.
The aides acknowledged a shell-shocked mood on Thursday because while they anticipated that Romney was going to do well, they didn't anticipate his tacks in the debate.
"He abandoned everything he had been trumpeting before now," one aide said. "He completely bent the truth."
Obama senior advisor David Plouffe criticized Romney's debate tactics on Thursday afternoon when speaking to reporters on Air Force One.
"We thought he did a very theatrically aggressive performance," Plouffe said, according to a White House pool report. "Is that going to change minds in places like Ohio, Nevada, and Virginia? We'll have to see, but that's the measure."
"Is he going to take the lead in Ohio," he continued. "If he doesn't, he's not going to be president."
He added of the debate: "We don't think it fundamentally alters the race."
Obama felt "he did a good job," Plouffe noted because he projected "steadiness."
Appearing at a campaign rally in Denver on Thursday morning, Obama sought to crank up the tempo of his campaign, taking an immediate shot at Romney.
"When I got on stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," he said. "It couldn't have been Mitt Romney ... The man onstage last night — he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney's decisions."
He accused Romney of "dancing around" his own positions but added, "If you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth."
Throughout the speech, Obama reflected on Romney's positions from the night before, lambasting Romney for his positions on taxes and on cutting funding for PBS.
"Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time," he said. "We didn't know Big Bird was driving the deficit. How about that?"
But Axelrod's comments reflected an overall sentiment from Obama-world — from the president's staunchest loyalists to donors and even some aides — who tried to make sense of the thrashing they witnessed Wednesday night.
They conceded the president came off as listless, seemed tired and did nothing to combat a fiery Romney, who was on the attack and dominated much of the debate. And they called Wednesday’s debate a missed opportunity for Obama in terms of putting the race away, after a strong month coming off of the Democratic National Convention.
“I’ve put down my paper bag and I am breathing again,” said one former administration official, who readily acknowledged that Obama endured a serious thumping in the debate. Another former Obama aide said, “It was obvious for everybody that his energy level was low — especially for the president.”
“Look, it was just a terrible performance,” an Obama donor said, adding that Thursday morning “felt like a hangover and no alcohol was involved.”
Even former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell weighed in, saying Obama “looked lethargic, disinterested, passive."
"I can't believe the president didn't fight back. He had so many openings ... he let [Romney] get away with one misstatement after another without fighting back. Didn't mention the 47 percent. When Romney mentioned his accountant he had nothing to say. If there was a strategy, it was a noncombatant strategy, and it makes no sense."
Obama aides quickly sought to push back on the narrative that the president flubbed the debate in a big way.
On the conference call with reporters, Axelrod called Romney an “artful dodger” who failed to answer questions about his policies in the debate and said Obama can’t afford to “allow someone to manhandle the truth.”
Axelrod credited Romney for a “vigorous” performance in Colorado.
“Gov. Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance. The problem was none of it was rooted in fact,” he said.
“He may win the Oscar for his performance last night, but he’s not going to win the presidency for his performance.”
Romney's campaign shot back that the Obama staff offered no defense of the president.
“The Obama campaign’s conference call today was just like the president’s performance last night. The campaign, like the president, offered no defense of the president’s first-term record or vision for a second term, and instead offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements and lies about Gov. Romney’s record," said Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
Those who know Obama say he, probably more than anyone, understands what went wrong on Wednesday night.
“I don’t think his advisers need to tell him anything — the president is a competitive guy," said one of the former Obama officials.
"He knows what happened. He’ll know what to do for the next one.”
— This story was originally posted at 12:06 p.m. and last updated at 4:30 p.m.