A reader writes:
I thoroughly agree with your blog post about Obama's collapse, though I would go a couple of steps further: Peter Baker's story in the Times yesterday offers a sense of Obama's loyal subordinates scrambling before the debate to get him engaged in prep, and then after the debate doing damage control. He seems to have no recognition of the effort all the king's horses & men are devoting to putting Humpty Dumpty together again. It reminds me how, in early September 2008, he admonished his senior staff to "step up your game" in the wake of the Palin convention bounce.
Not sure when he's ever accepted responsibility for his blunders, his lethargy, etc. But imagine how different things would've been had he–after brooding for a couple of days–gone on the stump and said, "Folks, I blew it. You've all been working so hard for me, and I in turn didn't bring my A game. There's no excuse for that. You deserve more out of me, and from here on up you're going to get it."
Michael Tomasky has correctly pointed out that Obama's convention speech was similarly lackluster. But he's drawn the wrong conclusion, which is that Obama secretly doesn't want to be president. It's worse than that, in my view: he wants it, but he has little interest in going through the effort in order to win. He's even more entitled than Bush, who at least relished giving a spirited defense of his presidency and (as he liked to put it) "asking for the vote."
Here's a passage from Robert Draper about Obama in GQ from three years ago:
As the writer of his own story, Obama is more attuned to the power of narrative and is more in control of it than any president in recent memory. Yet this same attention to narrative can also seem the source of Obama’s psychological and political shortcomings; they are the writer’s classic failings. The story that obsesses him is his own story: He tells it over and over, stamping it into the larger American narrative and often conflating the two, a feat of authorial arrogance that’s simultaneously an outsider’s plaintive quest for belonging.
In the telling, he shades and edits as a writer does, employing straw-man characters (those who would rather do nothing than fix the economy; the villainous Bush administration) to set a backdrop for his own heroic odyssey. Most perilously, Obama believes more strongly in the magic of words, especially his own, than perhaps any of his recent predecessors. His default option is to give a speech, and he’s maybe too prolific at doing so, since a disproportion of words to deeds is what ultimately undermines a politician.
What I failed to realize back then was the fatal inwardness of the man. His self-obsession makes him a good memoirist but otherwise undoes him even as a writer, since his isn't a failure to "tell a story" but rather to connect. What we saw in Denver was the Obama that was there to be seen all along: disengaged, self-interested, lecturing, not all that likable and a poor communicator. Where he's failed as president, those qualities have all come into play. In the minds of swing voters, those connections can now be made, and there's no Etch-a-Sketching away that revelation.
In my view, the election is now Romney's to lose.
I am not as down on Obama as my reader is. But at least he has an explanation for the piss-poor convention speech and the phoned-in first debate. No one else has supplied one, except the president himself:
Deep down underneath all the work I do, I think there’s a laziness in me.
But a few weeks before an election is a very strange time to let your own fundamental flaw take control.
Look: there's time. I've sat through a few very very flat Obama performances in my time as well. He is often best when up against the wall. If a campaign can flip this quickly it can flip back again, with good management. Biden needs to take Ryan's multiple contradictions apart and speak directly to the struggling middle class he can relate to. Obama needs to get off his fucking pedestal and get some work done: have crisp answers to what he wants to do; sharp exposures of Romney's constant inconsistencies and lies; and a reminder of how massive a task he faced four years ago and how he has largely helped us turn the corner. The next Romney-Obama debate requires an Obama come-back of heroic proportions. That's where your narrative ends, Barack, doesn't it?