The Campaign Is a Performance
I maintain that Barack Obama was terrible during last week’s debate and that many liberals — goaded on by a political media desperate for a new storyline and thrilled with the prospect that November’s election will indeed be too-close-to-call-cash-cow — are overreacting. There’s reason to believe the drop in unemployment announced on Friday was enough to step on Mitt’s post-debate bounce and return the contest to its previous equilibrium. And there’s reason not to believe such things. Simply put, we don’t know yet. So let’s try to save our definitive statements about the election, still nearly a month away, until we do.
My little whine about the gap between reason and enthusiasm aside, there are some actually interesting things being written about the debate. By and large, they focus on the President, his lackluster performance, and whatever kinds of pop psychoanalysis we can wring therefrom. A warning: I have a total, incurable weakness for armchair psychoanalysis. If you don’t, this post might not be for you. Now let the speculation commence.
A frequent line of criticism from left-of-center pundits against the President is that he just doesn’t look like he’s having fun. And while Americans don’t want Will Ferrell’s version of George W. Bush as president, they would like some buoyancy, some optimism, something good to believe in. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast is representative
It’s now been three nationally televised public performances in a row—the convention speech, the 60 Minutes interview, and the debate—where he was pretty terrible; withdrawn and distant and just not there. Someone needs to ask the cut-to-the-chase question: is he enthusiastic about keeping this job, or he is just maybe tired of being president?
I’d imagine the answer is Yes — but just barely. As to why? Well, the most honest answer, of course, is that I don’t know. Only Obama does. But that’s also kind of boring. So here’s a guess from Tomasky that I think is especially insightful
[Perhaps] it’s that the reality of his term is undoubtedly so different, and so much worse, than the presidency he envisioned for himself. There’s no doubt that he did envision himself as transformational. Almost everything that had happened in his life before becoming president—succeeding at everything, often leaving observers in awe of him—clearly suggested to him that he’d conquer the presidency. He also believed, I think really genuinely believed, that he was and could be a post-partisan figure. He thought this because he wasn’t a product of the ’60s, and he said so explicitly on occasion, noting at one point in 2008 that we didn’t need to “relitigate the ’60s” anymore.
Well, maybe he didn’t. But someone did. Conservatives did, because they believe that’s when it all went sour, and for them, it’s good for business besides.
To be fair, there were plenty of liberals who wanted to maintain the Culture War (and others, like me, who argue there is no Culture War because everything is Culture War… but that’s for another post). Even still, it’s true that Obama’s dreams of ushering in a new post-partisan politics were dashed on Republican rocks. When we remember how central a plank of his 2008 campaign was this post-partisan promise — and when we recall the nadir of Obama’s first term, the debt-ceiling debacle, was in no small part the result of the President’s insisting that a post-partisan Grand Bargain was in the offing — then the bitter joke snuck into Obama’s convention speech begins to look like something of a bad omen.
Barack Obama has an unfortunate habit of acting as if he believes, as Ta-Nehisi Coates sarcastically quipped, that he is not a politician but rather a philosopher-king. A New York Times piece on the Obama team’s practice debates and study sessions — in which Obama is reported to have been much like he was in Denver, distracted, uninterested, and poorly performing — adds some real heft to the critique. It’s understandable to find much of the theater, the inauthenticity, and, well, bullshit of high-level politics to be contemptible. It is! But when you’re capable of recognizing all of American politics’ media-driven flaws, yet you’re still compelled to become the most powerful and recognizable politician in the world, you’ve got to make your own peace with the less seemly elements of public service. Either that or pick yourself a new line of work.
It’s funny; I came across this David Axelrod comment today, uttered on CBS’s Face the Nation, which almost verbatim repeated what I had said to my partner at some point soon after the debate:
“The president showed up with the intent of answering questions and having a discussion, an honest discussion of where we will go as a country, and Romney showed up to deliver a performance, and he delivered a very good performance,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod went on to try to spin Romney’s performance as a mark against him — because the Republican candidate engaged in all manner of distortion, half-truth, or outright falsehood. But here’s the thing: between Romney and Obama, only one of them actually understood what his job was that night. Only one knew that a debate isn’t about policy, it isn’t about minutiae, and it isn’t about nuance. People don’t know the ins and outs of policy so they rely on human cues. A debater’s job is about projection; it’s showing people that you could be president, you want to be president. That you’re trustworthy. It’s about assuring folks that you want it so bad because, at least a little bit, you want to make their lives better. It is, in a word, a performance.