The night of October 16 was a good one for President Obama. After more than a month of sounding, looking, and acting like a tired man who resents being made to undergo the electioneering process, the Obama seen during the second presidential debate actually performed. He didn’t approach the debate like something it wasn’t (a genuine back and forth over which policies would best solve mutually recognized dysfunctions) but instead treated it as the bizarre, restrictive, and inauthentic set-piece of retail politicking that it is.
The guy who has spent much of the past four years chiding his leftwing supporters for not grappling with the world as it is, but rather as they’d like it to be, played to win the debate as it was, not as he’d like it. And most importantly, he won.
We talk a lot about how Mitt Romney is a human Visa card; i.e., anywhere on the political spectrum you want him to be. And true to ever-changing form, Romney reprised his celebrated performance as Reasonable Moderate (incidentally the only version of Romney to ever win election to public office). But as well-rehearsed as his head-fakes to the middle may have been — repeating his too-clever-by-half “trickle down government” critique of Obama and noting that many of his best female friends are women — he couldn’t pull them off quite like he did in Denver. The haughty plutocrat always fidgeting beneath Romney’s Ward Cleaver-like veneer of patriarchal benevolence, that unpleasant fellow eventually wriggled free from Mitt’s control. As usual, he was a real stickler for the debate’s rules.
More than anything else, the President is the reason why.
The differences between the Barack Obama we saw during the first debate and the second, they’re nearly as significant as Romney’s serial transformations. But because the President’s changes were stylistic, while Romney’s changes have been substantive (with the first debate as a notably rare exception), Obama’s self-revision has gone less appreciated. The President did nothing dramatic as voting against a Detroit bailout before voting for it, but he nevertheless comported himself on-stage like a guy who’d made his bones in politics through pithy sound-bites and the old Bill Clinton smile-and-shiv — not as a dry, boring, and bored policy expert unfamiliar with the theatrical and psychological essence of a television debate.
On October 3rd, Obama was a bloodless, above-it-all technocrat. The night of the 16th, he was a relentless, talented, and fundamentally conventional politician. He’d given up the prissy pursed lips and adopted the toothy grin. He wasn’t playing to his own self-regard but rather to the audience in the room and the millions watching through the camera. Two different people. Together, the two performances reflect not only the two distinct, coherent versions of Barack Obama the public has seen but also the tensions which have defined the near-entirety of the President’s first term. From the innocent optimism of Yes We Can to the implicitly acknowledged drudgery of Forward.
To get a sense of what the evolution I’m talking about looks like, it’s worthwhile to recall Ezra Klein‘s answer to the question that plagued Obama’s supporters in the days following his disastrous first debate: where was the vitality, enthusiasm and grandiosity that so defined the man they’d once elected? on why Obama 2012 has lacked the grandiose “vision” that defined Obama 2008. According to Klein, the Obama higher-ups have determined that voters are simply fed up with Bigness. Americans are in a Harding mood; they want a return to normalcy. From Klein:
Obama strategists think the American people are done with sweeping promises and transformative rhetoric. Voters are willing to believe Obama couldn’t have gotten much more done given the state of the economy and the intransigence of the Republicans, but they’re not willing to believe that a second term will somehow redeem the high hopes of the first. Obama has to run a more humble campaign, his strategists contend, because he must show that he has been tempered by experience and realism.
I’ll buy that focus groupers and the like have communicated a weary desire for stability; but that’s not just a thing voters happen to be feeling. It’s not some fact-of-life phenomenon that can’t really be tied to any concrete actions or decisions on the part of politicians. No; voters are weary because they’re disappointed with Barack Obama. That’s not news, I know, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you take in Team Obama’s spin-laden argument for how they win in November. If voters want quieter leadership for its own sake, that’s one thing; but if they’re asking for it because they think it’s the best Obama can give them, that’s quite another.
Klein goes on to talk about how Obama over-promised in 2008, which of course he did. Klein focuses on policy promises unkept — and there are more than a couple: Guantanamo closed, card-check passed, cap-and-trade implemented, the deficit halved — but I’m not sure it’s the lack of market-based environmental reform that’s got the electorate so down. In fact, I think there’s a persuasive argument to be made that what ails Obama’s relationship with many voters doesn’t have a damn thing to do with policy at all.
As much as I’d like to take credit for the idea, though, it’s not mine but Digby’s. In some ways, you could summarize her theory as the answer to Palin’s infamous “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?” barb:
Obama didn’t “overpromise” as Ezra claims… He promised things that were fantasies. They were nice fantasies, but they weren’t a “bold agenda” of major change. Sure, his platform had some good liberal objectives in them, but they weren’t substantially different than any other center-leftish Democrat in this era… [T]he central promise of his campaign was always that he was “the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair” and now that he is just another president, his claim to office has become just another prosaic exercise in partisan politics. And that’s pretty damned dull compared to the promise of 2008.
I think you’d have to really strain yourself to deny that, at least to a degree, Digby’s articulating the inchoate fatigue that defines many people’s current relationship with the President. But there’s a problem: this is absurd. A fantasy. Post-partisan hope and change, the dream that Barack Obama, through sheer force of irreproachable will, could carry American politics into an apolitical, hyper-rational, technocratic future — it’s a daydream of a fairy tale. It’s a society wide pathological need to eliminate conflict. It’s not a political strategy.
Obama had no chance to make good on the promise. (Republican leadership vowing total opposition before the Obama Administration’s first day was in the books had something to do with it.) He nearly self-immolated during last year’s debt-ceiling debacle; and prostrating himself for the sake of #compromise was distressing to the point of disillusion. The “Only Adult in the Room” strategy in practice was a rose by any other name — previously known as “triangulating.” News reports at the time and after confirmed the President and his leadership felt his meandering capitulations would pay off in the final weeks before the election. By then, Obama will have claimed the center of the electorate; and with it a second term.
But at root the Administration’s strategy labored under a gross misunderstanding of what voters wanted. Competence, not compromise, was and remains the chief desire. Understandably, people believe that if lawmakers could get along, then good things would follow. If good things aren’t coming from Washington, lawmakers must not be getting along. (Ironically, of course, DC’s most bipartisan ideas tend to be its worst.) If the past four years were remembered by a roaring economy, geopolitical stability, and an absence of tawdry political scandals and squabbling, people wouldn’t be quite so disappointed with Washington gridlock. They’d still complain, of course; but complaining about Washington is like talking about the weather.
Returning to Digby, she continues, hours before the second debate is set to begin:
I’m sincerely rooting for the president to do well tonight. I assume he has it in him — he’s a talented, professional politician with far more human appeal than that corporation in a suit Mitt Romney. I think people still want to believe in him. Here’s hoping he’s searched his soul and found a different vision, tempered by hard experience, that will make the American people see that he’s no longer up in the clouds promising unattainable dreams but down in the political trenches leading the battle on their behalf.
I’d say he made good on her hopes, but it’s an open question as to whether or not that’ll be enough for enough. It may be the case that a decisive number of those who supported the candidate Obama in 2008 did so on something of a prayer; or, less charitably, a lark. America is not a nation generally associated with a hard-headed, unromantic, modest temperament. Voting to end the original sin of white supremacy while simultaneously abolishing politics as we (and anyone else, ever) know it — that’s a whole lot more fun than the unsatisfying work of lurching toward tomorrow. Obama, The One is a whole lot more fun than Obama, the Democrat. He’s not who he was, who many of us wanted him to be.
He’s a politician.