Forgive me for rehashing Wednesday night’s debate yet again, but some of the postmortems impel me to do so.
I’m not talking about the comical excuses for Obama’s failure like the poor fellow who thought Mitt Romney was carrying a crib sheet and then had to admit it was a handkerchief. Or the well-known massage enthusiast who argued the difference between the candidates was due to the Denver altitude as if this were not a presidential debate but an abruptly scheduled NBA doubleheader.
No, I’m talking about the more serious explanations for the president’s incompetence – that Obama was either over-confident (and therefore unprepared) or bored or both. Many have explained his body language that way, not to mention his meandering answers.
I doubt the president was over-confident, nor do I think he underestimated Romney.
I have quite a different explanation.
Barack Obama was afraid. In fact, on a certain level he was petrified.
Now I admit I have been making my living most of my life as a novelist and a screenwriter, so I may be no more than “creating characters” here, but consider this:
What we have before us in these debates is an almost archetypal confrontation – between a man who was and is an exceptionally good father and a man who was deserted by his.
Good fathering is the story of Mitt Romney’s life. He has five sons who are, by all accounts, devoted to him and vice-versa. These boys grew up with a father who, although wealthy and successful, worked like a demon, doted on them, and apparently devoted an extraordinary amount of time to charitable work, in which he also involved them. Indeed, I’ve never heard of a politician who did anything quite like it.
Almost the polar opposite, Barack Obama’s father abandoned him twice and then ended up an irresponsible drunken victim of multiple car crashes. This sad behavior precipitated a search by Obama that brought him in contact with several father surrogates, notably Frank Marshall Davis and Jeremiah Wright, that it would be hard to brand as anywhere near satisfactory. (Davis was a pornographer and about Wright the less said the better.) No Mitt Romneys there.
If you think this is lost on Barack Obama when he stands opposite Romney, then you think the president is stupid, which he is obviously not. But it’s worse for him yet, because he is standing opposite a father who has worked harder, has more experience, and is more knowledgeable and charitable than he and he, on some level at least, must know it.
Not only that, most of what Mitt Romney has done, including graduating simultaneously from Harvard Law and Harvard Business, is an open book, while almost everything about Obama remains purposefully hidden. (He knows this too, obviously.) Obama lives in fear of exposure – and thus in fear of Romney who, although rich, is much more the self-made man of the two, the ultimate father figure.
The face-to-face clash of these two men is almost out of Greek drama. Obama must rage against or embrace the man who represents what he most dearly needed and never had. If this really were Aeschylus or Sophocles, Obama would be caught between those conflicting goals and end up plucking his own eyes out.
But of course it is not. It is something much more quotidian – an American presidential election. And much as we, the Greek chorus, might have pity for Obama, it is ourselves we must pity and therefore reject him.
And that time for rejecting is coming soon. We will soon witness Act II of this play as a debate in a style embarrassingly called a “town hall” (imagine saying that with a straight face in a country of three hundred plus million). Silly as that construct may be and easily prone to manipulation, remember that it will be the same two players, the same archetypes, participating. This time Obama may mask his fear in rage, he may sneer and snarl a lot. But Romney is the same man, the same good father. Trust him. He will prevail.