The president clearly won his first debate, but that was 34 years ago, when he was a junior in Mrs. Weldon’s speech class at Punahou School in Hawaii.
The topic was gun control and, on a lark, Barry Obama decided to take the side against gun regulations. He went into the debate cool and easy. Jeff Cox, his opponent, spent weeks compiling statistics, memorizing arguments, rehearsing his presentation. And then, he recalled, “Barry got up there and he just had a few arguments I hadn’t thought of. . . . He was very good on his feet, thinking more strategically on what could benefit him. . . . I felt he formulated in his own mind — while we were doing it — a kind of angle or wedge that was different than the angle I had been going. I was literal — one, two, three, four — and he kind of did some audibles.”
Obama’s high school pals, supremely confident about his debating skills, were not the least bit surprised. One of them drew a sketch for Cox with the caption: “Barry . . . You . . . Bang, Bang, Bang.”
What a distance from then to now. The only possible similarity between that long-ago performance in a Honolulu classroom and Obama’s recent showing against Mitt Romney might be the question of whether he took either debate “really seriously.” The cool fluidity, the improvisational ease, the unexpected angle that could throw off his opponent — those skills were barely evident in Denver. Many of the president’s supporters, confident going in, seemed shocked by what they witnessed, their sentiments ranging from fury to anxiety to depression.
The media response reminds me of Eugene McCarthy’s observation that journalists are “like birds on a wire” — all flapping and twittering off in the same direction at the same time. Meanwhile, partisans watching debates are like baseball fans during the playoffs, hyperventilating as they vacillate between ecstasy and despair, depending on each game’s outcome. And like sports fans, many would rather excoriate their side for a loss than credit the other team for a win.
As Obama attempts to regain his equilibrium in the lead-up to Tuesday’s debate, questions persist among his followers. What was he thinking? Why did angles of attack that seemed so obvious to others elude him that night? Can he figure it out and get his magic back before Election Day?
These questions are odd echoes of the laments about Bill Clinton after his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. With fury, anxiety or depression, Clinton’s believers would ask: What was he thinking? How could he not see the dangers that were so obvious to everyone else? Can he find his way through this?
The parameters of their dilemmas are vastly different, but the answers are similar, centering on a common theme rooted in their histories. With Obama and Clinton both, strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked. The same qualities that carried each man to the White House cannot be separated from traits that can give them varying degrees of trouble.