Why the Denver debate changed everything.
By PEGGY NOONAN.
We all say Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. But it’s all still Denver, Denver, and the mystery that maybe isn’t a mystery at all.
If Cincinnati and Lake County go for Mitt Romney on Nov. 6 it will be because of what happened in Denver on Oct. 3. If Barack Obama barely scrapes through, if there’s a bloody and prolonged recount, it too will be because of Denver.
Nothing echoes out like that debate. It was the moment that allowed Mr. Romney to break through, that allowed dismay with the incumbent to coalesce, that allowed voters to consider the alternative. What the debate did to the president is what the Yankees’ 0-4 series against the Tigers did at least momentarily, to the team’s relationship with their city. “Dear Yankees, We don’t date losers. Signed, New Yorkers” read the Post’s headline.
America doesn’t date losers either.
Why was the first debate so toxic for the president? Because the one thing he couldn’t do if he was going to win the election is let all the pent-up resentment toward him erupt.
Americans had gotten used to him as The President. Whatever his policy choices, whatever general direction he seemed to put in place he was The President, a man who had gotten there through natural gifts and what all politicians need, good fortune.
What he couldn’t do was present himself, when everyone was looking, as smaller than you thought. Petulant, put upon, above it all, full of himself. He couldn’t afford to make himself look less impressive than the challenger in terms of command, grasp of facts, size.
But that’s what he did.
And in some utterly new way the president was revealed, exposed. All the people whose job it is to surround and explain him, to act as his buffers and protectors—they weren’t there. It was him on the stage, alone with a competitor. He didn’t have a teleprompter, and so his failure seemed to underscore the cliché that the prompter is a kind of umbilical cord for him, something that provides nourishment, the thing he needs to sound good. He is not by any means a stupid man but he has become a boring one; he drones, he is predictable, it’s never new. The teleprompter adds substance, or at least safety.
A great and assumed question, the one that’s still floating out there, is what exactly happened when Mr. Obama did himself in? What led to it?
Was it the catastrophic execution of an arguably sound strategy? Perhaps the idea was to show the president was so unimpressed by his challenger that he could coolly keep him at bay by not engaging.
Maybe Mr. Obama’s handlers advised: “The American people aren’t impressed by this flip-flopping, outsourcing plutocrat, and you will deepen your bond with the American people, Mr. President, by expressing in your bearing, through your manner and language, how unimpressed you are, too.” So he sat back and let Mr. Romney come forward. But Mr. Romney was poised, knowledgeable, presidential. It was a mistake to let that come forward!
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Was it the catastrophic execution of a truly bad strategy? Maybe they assumed the election was already pretty much in the bag, don’t sweat it, just be your glitteringly brilliant self and let Duncan the Wonder Horse go out there and turn people off. But nothing was in the bag. The sheer number of people who watched—a historic 70 million—suggests a lot of voters were still making up their minds.
Maybe the president himself didn’t think he could possibly be beaten because he’s so beloved. Presidents are always given good news, to keep their spirits up. The poll numbers he’d been seeing, the get-out-the-vote reports, the extraordinary Internet effort to connect with every lonely person in America, which is a lot of persons—maybe everything he was hearing left him thinking his position was impregnable.
But maybe these questions are all off. Maybe what happened isn’t a mystery at all.
That, anyway, is the view expressed this week by a member of the U.S. Senate who served there with Mr Obama and has met with him in the White House. People back home, he said, sometimes wonder what happened with the president in the debate. The senator said, I paraphrase: I sort of have to tell them that it wasn’t a miscalculation or a weird moment. I tell them: I know him, and that was him. That guy on the stage, that’s the real Obama.
Which gets us to Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics,” published last month. The portrait it contains of Mr. Obama—of a president who is at once over his head, out of his depth and wholly unaware of the fact—hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Throughout the book, which is a journalistic history of the president’s key economic negotiations with Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama is portrayed as having the appearance and presentation of an academic or intellectual while being strangely clueless in his reading of political situations and dynamics. He is bad at negotiating—in fact doesn’t know how. His confidence is consistently greater than his acumen, his arrogance greater than his grasp.
He misread his Republican opponents from day one. If he had been large-spirited and conciliatory he would have effectively undercut them, and kept them from uniting. (If he’d been large-spirited with Mr. Romney, he would have undercut him, too.) Instead he was toughly partisan, he shut them out, and positions hardened. In time Republicans came to think he doesn’t really listen, doesn’t really hear. So did some Democrats.
Business leaders and mighty CEOs felt patronized: After inviting them to meet with him, the president read from a teleprompter and included the press. They felt like “window dressing.” One spoke of Obama’s surface polish and essential remoteness. In negotiation he did not cajole, seduce, muscle or win sympathy. He instructed.
He claimed deep understanding of his adversaries and their motives but was often incorrect. He told staffers that John Boehner, one of 11 children of a small-town bar owner, was a “country club Republican.” He was often patronizing, which in the old and accomplished is irritating but in the young and inexperienced is infuriating. “Boehner said he hated going down to the White House to listen to what amounted to presidential lectures,” Mr. Woodward writes.
Mr. Obama’s was a White House that had—and showed—no respect for trying to negotiate with other Republicans. Through it all he was confident—”Eric, don’t call my bluff”—because he believed, as did his staff, that his talents would save the day.
They saved nothing. Washington became immobilized.
Mr. Woodward’s portrait of the president is not precisely new—it has been drawn in other ways in other accounts, and has been a staple of D.C. gossip for three years now—but it is vivid and believable. And there’s probably a direct line between that portrait and the Obama seen in the first debate. Maybe that’s what made it so indelible, and such an arc-changer.
People saw for the first time an Obama they may have heard about on radio or in a newspaper but had never seen.
They didn’t see some odd version of the president. They saw the president.
And they didn’t like what they saw, and that would linger.
A version of this article appeared October 27, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When Americans Saw the Real Obama.