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performances in a row—the convention speech, the 60 Minutes interview, and the debate—where he was pretty terrible; withdrawn and distant and just not there.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.

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25 thoughts on “The Campaign Is a Performance

  1. A random observation brought to mind by the discussion of the Connecticut guy too smart to be a cop earlier today:

    This Presidential term is the longest Barack Obama has held a full-time job in his life. (state senate and law lecturing were both part time jobs, where he also had (part time) employment at a law firm and as a member of several Boards of Directors.)

    (an 8 year term will be the longest he has stuck with any single thing aside from his marriage and family).

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  2. A debater’s job is about projection; it’s showing people that you could be president, you want to be president.

    Romney definitely showed that.

    That you’re trustworthy.

    He failed there. Miserably.

    It’s about assuring folks that you want it so bad because, at least a little bit, you want to make their lives better.

    Do you think Romney actually accomplished that goal? From my pov he clearly didn’t. Now, the reason my view of that is interesting is that both you and I share pretty heavily overlapped beliefs, so we both probably agree almost entirely about where Romney lied, the specific points he lied about, the obfuscations, the flipfloppery, etc etc. From my pov that disqualifies him from succeeding in all the categories you mention above, and from actually winning the debate. I take it that from you’re pov you agree. It’s only because you’re adopting the pov of a hypothetical and stereotypical low-information voter that you think he succeeded on those points. But why think that? Do you really think they’re so stupid as to not see the lies for what they are? Isn’t you’re job then, as a pundit and all, to say that Obama actually did win the debate – on the merits and all? I have to say that the way you’re approaching this topic reinforces everything I – and probably you! – find detestable about political analysis.

    It is, in a word, a performance.

    Sure. For better or worse. Obama was betting on the better. Romney was betting on the worse. But you weren’t persuaded by the performance, were you?

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    • “Isn’t you’re job then, as a pundit and all, to say that Obama actually did win the debate – on the merits and all?”

      This is just lib self-delusion. Here’s a fairly representative quote from Obama the debate, jumping from one topic to a marginally related one, losing his train of thought, spewing out mindless talking points. You tell me exactly what “merits” Obama supposedly won on.

      “So at — at Cleveland Clinic, one of the best health care systems in the world, they actually provide great care cheaper than average. And the reason they do is because they do some smart things. They — they say, if a patient’s coming in, let’s get all the doctors together at once, do one test instead of having the patient run around with 10 tests. Let’s make sure that we’re providing preventive care so we’re catching the onset of something like diabetes. Let’s — let’s pay providers on the basis of performance as opposed to on the basis of how many procedures they’ve — they’ve engaged in. Now, so what this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, let’s use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do.”

      Uhhhh, uhh, uhhh. MTV ought to start a new cartoon show called Barack and Butt-head.

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      • You tell me exactly what “merits” Obama supposedly won on.

        Christamighty, just about every substantive comment he made in that debate was a lie. It was either factually inaccurate or contradicted his previous policy proposals. Listing all of them won’t change your mind, of course. But Elias was fully aware of the lies.

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      • Even when you fight your way though through Obama’s impenetrable syntax, there’s no logic there. If Cleveland clinic is currently innovating by doing things differently from other hospitals, and we put in a system where the federal government chooses the best of those innovations and makes all hospitals implement them, then all the hospitals will be doing the same thing and all the innovation will come to a full stop.

        The man just can’t think in complex ways or process cause and effect or logical consequences.

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        • Obama’s impenetrable syntax

          Every sentence in that quote parses. Try finding a W or Palin quote that does the same.

          all the hospitals will be doing the same thing and all the innovation will come to a full stop

          The man just can’t think in complex ways or process cause and effect or logical consequences.<

          Project much?

          Because they'll be forbidden from tinkering further.

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        • bullshit. just plain bullshit. We have fifteen gazdillion EHRs out there, and any regs on the books don’t discriminiate between EPIC, CERNER, and half a dozen other things.
          Don’t talk bullshit on my field of expertise.
          I may not know all the laws cause they ain’t done finalizing them yet, but they are not going to force anyone to do anything. Measurement is not choosing.

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        • So when Obama said, “Now, so what this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, let’s use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do,” he was just babbling?

          What he also forgot to mention about Cleveland Clinic is that it sees over 8,000 patients a day and makes over $9 billion a year by some reports, which is $24 million a day. Its patients include Prince Charles, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the emir of Kuwait, the head of the UAE, and various other royals families, presidents, prime ministers, and top athletes. Seems like that’s a pretty big omission when you’re talking about some clinic in bumfuck Ohio as a model for the nation’s health care system.

          What about the hospitals who don’t get to charge the Saudi royal family whatever they’ll bear?

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    • It’s only because you’re adopting the pov of a hypothetical and stereotypical low-information voter that you think he succeeded on those points. But why think that? Do you really think they’re so stupid as to not see the lies for what they are? Isn’t you’re job then, as a pundit and all, to say that Obama actually did win the debate – on the merits and all?

      Uh oh. Hit me where it hurts!

      Seriously — there is truth to this, but I don’t think the folks I’m imagining are low-information necessarily. I think the gap between me and even well-informed voters is pretty large. Most people tend to find other ways to occupy their time. And in all honesty the policy discussed in a debate is rather impenetrable, laced with DC-insider buzz words and jargon. I think Romney did a good job portraying himself as a decent guy, yes. On that I think we may disagree. And I think that — alongside confidence, seeming mastery of the issues, and zeal — decides things.

      I do feel chastened however about not getting into something more susbtantive yet from debate night. Let’s see what tomorrow brings…

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  3. “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.”

    Oh I think we do. Even if Governor Romney’s momentum somehow evaporates tonight, the President has no lead left. In order to win he’s going to have to build a lead again, on the strength of something other than opposition to Mitt Romney. Frankly, I couldn’t even guess what that might be.

    It just occurred to me today that this election has the greatest differential in plain old competence between the candidates of any Presidential election ever. I couldn’t even think of a close alternative: the best I came up with was Eisenhower vs. Kennedy, but of course they never ran against each other.

    I’d venture that most of the contributors here at the League are going to be voting for Obama. More than anything else, they want to express their antipathy to the Republican party as it’s currently constituted. But there’s also a fair number of libs in America, who were going to vote for Obama and never really gave Romney much consideration but who are voting for him now. Because even if they’re libs, as part of their own self-regard they still want to believe that they are contributing to the intelligent, sophisticated part of America.

    This cohort of voters would never care if President Obama were a socialist or born in Kenya, but the staggering, mind-blowing incompetence of the debate is a bridge too far.

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    • Hey, Koz, I actually agree with what you write here:

      It just occurred to me today that this election has the greatest differential in plain old competence between the candidates of any Presidential election ever.

      Truly effective lying is a skill and Romney is just so much better at it than Obama is.

      I think The Onion makes the point well
      here
      . It’s funny, because it’s true.

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  4. Because even if they’re libs, as part of their own self-regard they still want to believe that they are contributing to the intelligent, sophisticated part of America.

    I’d say that’s projection on your part, based on your own biases. Romney gave a masterful debate performance but either lied or stepped away from most of the positions he’s taken ever since he started running for president in 2006. The Romney who showed up at that debate was not the guy we’ve been seeing for quite a while now. I found the whole performance rather disconcerting and shockingly dishonest.

    Obama’s debating performance sucked, but that doesn’t make him an empty suit. I’m sure most people who consider themselves liberal will still vote for him because who knows what Romney you’re going to get if you vote for him. Whether that will be enough for Obama to win the election, I don’t know.

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  5. Well the media was due for a breathless reversal of their whole “Obama has this in the bag”. Predictable doesn’t pay the bills. Sullivan is going into hysterics at the Dish. It’s all very interesting to watch and I don’t begrudge the conservatives their balm at the moment. They’ve had a hard couple months. Plus is’t refreshing to see them cheering as Romney hurtles all their principles over the side to try and bring home a win.

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  6. I think the post really hits the mark. Politics may on some level be a search for truth, but it’s also an exercise in persuasion and, well, fighting. I hope Axelrod and Obama didn’t actually expect that when Obama went to a debate he was going to get a discussion seminar where he would get to play the role of sage professor dispensing pearls of wisdom to eager acolytes. Because a presidential debate IS about performance and about who comes off looking better, smarter, more engaged, more on your side, and more willing to fight for you. Complaining about the superficiality of this may or may not be true, but it’s the argument liberals have used to console themselves when their candidate fails at this test of persuasion, going back to Stevenson. Getting better at this for the next debate will serve Obama better than complaining that it’s all so unseemly and beneath him. Well, it’s not beneath Romney (nothing is), so his choice is either to actually make a contest with him on persuasion or to cede the field. Hopefully the geniuses in Chicago are making this basic point to him, regardless of the philospher-king talking points they may be spewing in public.

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    • I think the obvious answer is most likely the correct one.

      Going into the debate Obama’s assorted advisors were happy with the race as it was, they had a healthy lead, a long lineup of firewall swing states and a floundering Mitt campaign. So they told Obama “play defensive, run out the clock, no news is good news”. The talking points they equipped Obama with also were geared towards hitting the Mitt they’ve been fighting up till now. They never thought that Romney would be so audacious as to do a 180 on national television. Obama doesn’t like debating and he’s never been particularly good at it plus he’s busy so he didn’t take the debate prep seriously.

      The result, Obama went in armed for the wrong Mitt with a dislike of the process and likely a dislike of Mitt himself. Mitt pulled his etch-a-sketch on national TV and Obama was dumbfounded. He didn’t attack because he had been advised to try and stand pat. His annoyance and confusion came through, his debate body language was terrible and even what weapons he had prepared for attacking were ill suited for use when Romney chameleoned back into Massachusetts Mitt.

      Now the only question is if all the debate naysayers are right and debates don’t change anything because right now it sure looks like they’re insanely wrong. Obama had better be doing his homework because he really handed a gift to Romney in this last debate.

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      • The debate surely turned things, both in the polls and in terms of juicing up the base. Going into the debate, I don’t think anyone thought that Obama could increase his lead with a good performance since he was at about 88% to win. The only result would be a bump for Romney, and that happened. Only a little more time will tell if that bump sticks, or grows, or fades… Right now, about a week out, Nate Silver still has Obama at 75% to win. FWTW.

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  7. The piece below talks about Obama reportedly blowing off debate prep and then walking off Wednesday night thinking he’d won. I hope it’s not true or that he’s had a serious rethink since then because otherwise the guy has some serious problems of insight and perspective that don’t bode well for the future.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2215173/Obama-believed-beaten-Romney-Denver-debate-ignoring-advice-aides.html

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