Anatomy of a Disastrous Debate Performance
The Romney-Obama debate was bizarre for so many reasons. Usually spin masters needle the media immediately to "prove" that their so-so candidate won. But after this debate, almost no one made the argument that Obama was close to winning -- so great was the risk for even a toadying media to look ridiculous and so clear-cut the ineptness of the president.
Instead, the eventual spin veered to why Obama lost (e.g., altitude, a supposed tranquilizer, a supposed mysterious Kleenex for Romney, a national security crisis, etc.) and was the stuff of fantasies. And when a candidate does poorly, usually his supporters look to the bright side, in worry about their favorite’s crushed spirits, and hope in the days following the setback that perhaps their optimism might revive him. But on this occasion, the Left went nearly ballistic, in blaming Obama more than Romney for letting them down, as if a Bill Maher, Michael Moore, Andrew Sullivan, or Chris Matthews had been personally betrayed, sold out, or even played for suckers, as if they were to admit something like “we at least expect you to show up when we do so much to cover for you.”
While losing debaters often can postfacto snipe about the slickness of their successful opponent, I can't remember a disappointed loser replaying and reconfiguring the debate over the next few days on the campaign trail, in the weird fashion Obama has been offering teleprompted counter-arguments that he could never muster on his own during the actual faceoff. The classic blowhard, after all, is the loud blusterer, who always retells his own arguments and run-ins from the perspective of his own genius, thereby offering the embarrassing proof that he regrets just how poorly he was outfoxed and outargued without a script.
The common denominator here is the old story of the vast gulf between the reality and mythology of Barack Obama. Although Obama had sometimes shown some of the smarmy cool and set-speech fluidity of a John Edwards, otherwise there was never much evidence that Obama had ever excelled in debate or repartee -- perhaps explaining why he wisely had consented to the fewest press conference and one-on-one Q-and-A press sessions of any recent president. His reliance on the teleprompter has no recent presidential parallel, but was always wise even for the briefest of appearances. And yet even here, the chameleon-like set-speeches quickly become monotonous and the faux cadences jarring rather than clever.
Obama’s real preferences are instead for brief puff appearances on favorable, celebrity TV and radio shows that tend to enfeeble rather than sharpen his own analysis. And even those are rare, given his propensity to offer gaffes (in this regard, the "you didn’t build that" and "the private sector is doing fine" sort are as frequent as or more common than the far more notorious fare from Joe Biden). In such an attenuated career, we forget that Obama's prior debate appearances have been rare, and against undistinguished debaters in group fashion during the Democratic primary and John McCain, and, in fact, were themselves largely just workmanlike and just enough to get by. His real and only political interests (and skills) are in caricaturing opponents, in a sort of trash-talking sports fashion (“you’re likeable enough, Hilary,” "fat-cat banker,” “corporate jet owner,” the limb-lopping, tonsil-pulling physicians, etc.) or in whipping up a crowd (“get in their faces,” “gun to a knife fight,” “punish our enemies,” etc.)
Yet perhaps the reason for Obama's reluctance to face questions and counter-argument was not just that Obama is not very good at it and resents doing his homework ("a drag"), and not just that his economic and foreign policy records are dismal and would be hard to defend under scrutiny, but largely that he has had scant need to work on debating or sharpening his analytical skills -- given the investment of the media and popular culture in his success.
An often distracted and diffident Obama has astutely understood that his own fortunes were in some strange way a referendum on the liberal sensibilities of legions of neurotic but influential elites. That realization had excused him from much of the mundane worries of other politicians -- almost as if problematic things like polls, government statistics, laws surrounding lay-off notices, or controversies (from Fast and Furious to the Libya consulate disaster) would all be properly adjusted by others more interested in his success than he in his own.
How else could he be so recklessly careless in his effusive praise of the odious racist Rev. Wright, or so patently insincere in his demagogic and racialist rants before largely African-American audiences? How else could he simultaneously demonize the Bush anti-terrorism protocols while embracing or expanding nearly all of them, or so clearly provide his own arguments (e.g., deficit will be cut in half, if he hasn’t solved the problem, he would be a one-term president, etc.?) against himself?
Does all this mean that Obama cannot bounce back a bit in the next two debates? Not really.
Expectations have changed after the greatest audience in the history of presidential debates saw a veritable empty suit -- or empty chair -- on stage, without a helpful media follow-up question, or a "make no mistake about it" refrain to be had. Over 60 million now expect little at all from their president in the debate, so Obama will benefit from dismal expectations by just showing up as the incumbent and being addressed as “Mr. President.” The pressure on Romney to be even more impressive mounts. The realization that another rant by a liberal commentator could cement the reputation of Obama as an incompetent and add to the image of a hopelessly inept president will temper post-debate media anger. The moderator cannot afford to be laissez-faire in the fashion of Jim Lehrer, and will prove far more partisan. The media pressure to discount the importance of the debates themselves will increase.
But despite all that, the nation has now seen that the conservative critique of Barack Obama -- fluff without substance -- was frighteningly accurate.