But the now-familiar phrase took on a different — and more troubling — meaning for the president in the debate as it capped a decidedly desultory performance that left even his most loyal allies wondering what was wrong with him.
Obama’s debate performance also raised a bigger question: Is he overrated as a candidate?
Four years ago, that question would have been unimaginable. After all, this was a man who in his first run for national office not only outmaneuvered the Clinton family to win the Democratic presidential nomination but also went on to claim a 365-electoral-vote general-election landslide against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). And, oh by the way, Obama did all that while raising $750 million (including $500 million online) — a sum that shattered all fundraising records.
And yet, even in that campaign, there was some evidence that candidate Obama had flaws — the most notable of which was that while he delivered solid performances in the debates against McCain, he was far from the champion performer that many expected. (The coverage largely glossed over that fact because a) the race had already heavily tilted in Obama’s favor by that point, making the debates less meaningful, and b) McCain was a decent debater at best, which made Obama’s performance seem stronger in comparison.)
Fast-forward to this campaign — and specifically its last two major public events — and you see Obama’s flaws as a candidate in starker relief.
His acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was flat and, rhetorically, felt like a patchwork effort — five or six different speeches all clumped into a single address. His debate performance was glum and defensive, leaving anyone who watched with the overwhelming sense that the president would have rather been anywhere but sharing the stage with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).
Obama allies defended the convention speech as workmanlike, if not inspirational, and insist that the debate was more a function of the president being caught by surprise by an alleged Romney reinvention than anything else.
Maybe. But that analysis misses two broader points about Obama the candidate.
First, he’s a terrible faker. Obama is simply not good at acting as though he is happy to be somewhere he’s not or pretending that every person he meets is the single most important person he has ever met. Obama wasn’t thrilled (to say the least) about the man he was debating Wednesday, and it showed. Big time. (In that, Obama is the polar opposite of Bill Clinton. Clinton’s greatest political gift was his ability to make wherever he was seem like exactly where he wanted to be.)
Second, Obama is, at heart, a political pragmatist who relies much more on analysis and caution than gut instinct. He stuck with a prose-over-poetry convention speech when it became clear that the fundamentals of the race were moving in his favor. And, even as Romney repeatedly bashed him during the debate, Obama avoided going deeply negative against the Republican with attacks on his “47 percent” comments or his time spent at Bain Capital. (Even Obama’s most daring decision — to run for president after just two years in the Senate — was born of careful calculation, not willy-nilly cavalierness.)
“He’s a cautious man— been like that his whole life,” said one senior Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s top elected official. “It’s him. He doesn’t throw punches.”
Here’s the reality: Obama is the single most talented big-speech giver (the convention speech notwithstanding) and fundraiser currently operating in politics — and it’s not close. But, like all candidates, he has weaknesses, too. And that makes his I-am-not-a-perfect-president line from last week’s debate more true than most people — maybe up to and including Obama himself — realize.