As part of the slow, downward slide of civilization since the publication of Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President 1960,” most books about presidential campaigns have morphed into the breathless David-Axelrod-was-nervous view of backstairs history. But when the now-it-can-be-told chronicles of Campaign 2012 come out, I will rush with panting eagerness to read why Barack Obama gave the worst debate performance of an incumbent president ever.
In the interim, though, there is no credible insider account of what triggered the Debacle in Denver. Maybe, as Obama aides suggested even before the debate, it’s simply that the demands of the presidency got in the way of rigorous rehearsals. Or maybe there’s merit in Al Gore’s theory that the president was left listless by his rapid exposure to Denver’s altitude. Of course, the Mile High City is exactly the same elevation as it was during the 2008 Democratic convention, where Obama gave a rousing acceptance speech.
Knowing that we’re veering into the arena of unverified speculation, let’s look at four plausible explanations for Obama’s lassitude:
The stopwatch problem: Like all presidents, Obama controls the White House clocks. On Obama Standard Time, meetings begin when the president arrives and end when he departs. But Wednesday night, debate moderator Jim Lehrer was the official timekeeper, which left Obama in the unpresidential role of insisting on an extra five seconds to complete an answer. Because of the president’s long-windedness, he barely had time to mention facts such as Mitt Romney’s health care program in Massachusetts bearing an eerie resemblance to Obamacare.
Obama’s normal rhetorical style lends itself to the blurriness of “some say this, some say that, but I say a third thing.” Without the discipline of a teleprompter for his major speeches, Obama might never come to a point at all. But if he can rebound in his two remaining debates with Romney, Obama will be rewarded with four more years free of traffic lights and stopwatches.
The sycophancy problem: David Gergen, who has worked in four different White Houses, suggested on CNN that Obama was psychologically unprepared to be directly attacked by Romney. The presidency, by its nature, invites deference. Dissent in the Oval Office is always muted, with criticism couched in the mildest of terms and delivered with an air of reluctance.
Obama appears to be particularly prone to being trapped in the bubble of his own sense of greatness. It comes out in stray interview comments such as his claim to “60 Minutes” that his legislative and foreign policy record is surpassed only by those of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. If the president feels he has already punched his ticket for Mount Rushmore, then it might be hard for him to instantly respond when his tenure in the White House comes under partisan attack.
The speechifying problem: Even when challenged in the primaries, presidents never deign to debate their intra-party rivals. So, like all incumbents, Obama stepped on the debate stage in Denver without having gone lectern-to-lectern with a political foe since 2008.
A president’s closest equivalent to a debate is probably a White House press conference. But Obama prefers private, one-on-one interviews to public, freewheeling press conferences. According to presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, Obama has held only one-third as many news conferences as any recent predecessor. When he does take press questions, Obama’s style is to deliver a brief speech on the topic raised by the reporter rather than providing a crisp answer. The result of this rhetorical overload is that nothing during his White House tenure prepared Obama for the succinctness demanded by a presidential debate.
The second-term problem: Obama appeared so pained to be sharing a debate stage with Romney that it raised questions about whether Obama (cliché alert) has the fire in the belly to fight for another four years as president. Of course, if Obama truly feels he has already given enough, the polite thing would have been to inform the Democrats before they re-nominated him.
The most intriguing notion was advanced by the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, who argues that doling out death by drone strikes has left Obama heartsick. All presidents chafe under the arduous decisions and splendid isolation that comes with life in the White House. (Though, no one would doubt that Bill Clinton, in particular, would return in a heartbeat.) For Obama, saddled with a stagnant economy and no longer laboring under any illusion that he can transcend partisan gridlock, the next four years may look like a prison sentence as much as an opportunity for epic presidential deeds.
There is, of course, a danger in too much free-range theorizing about Obama’s psyche based on 90 languid minutes. Maybe, in truth, Obama was never a good debater, a pesky detail obscured by the historic nature of his 2008 candidacy. Maybe the problem was simply the result of a physics experiment: A low-energy moderator collided with a low-energy president.
But something seemed off-kilter Wednesday night. And if it endures through the next two debates, we may have to rethink our conception of the Obama presidency. Or—as it may be known if this debate slump continues—the Obama former presidency.