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Obama's Choke Revisited

What his first debate tells us about his troubled second term

Getty Images; Alex E. Proimos/Flickr

On October 3, 2012, in Denver, Barack Obama almost threw his presidency away. His disdain for the requirements of politics, his ill-disguised contempt for his opponents, and his complacent cockiness caught up to him in a listless and bewildering debate performance in front of 67 million people. The strategy, style, execution, spin—everything went wrong. “We had this inflated lead [around seven points in internal polls], and we wanted to see if we could erase it in one night,” David Simas, now a White House senior adviser, joked after the election. Administration officials may laugh now, but his debate disaster wasn’t just a blip on the way to reelection; it helps explain how this president operates and how he might get through an already scandal-tarred second term.

Ron Klain, the veteran Democratic Party operative who headed Obama’s debate prep, had reminded the president over the summer that he would probably lose the first debate. Almost all incumbents do, from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to both Bushes. The challenger wins just by being on equal footing with the president for the first time. He gets to seem like a plausible commander-in-chief without having to defend a record, while the press, looking for an underdog story, sets the expectations bar higher for the sitting president.

From the start, Obama’s unexpected lead in the polls had made it tricky to formulate debate strategy. The prep team counseled the president to stick with the calm and agreeable tone that had helped give him his lead over Mitt Romney. The worst thing that could happen, his coaches figured, was a moment like Obama’s patronizing “You’re likable enough, Hillary” line in the 2008 New Hampshire debate, which opened the door to her comeback there. It was a real danger. In prep, one coach said, “If you armed him with a scalpel, he took out a hacksaw.”

When a mock question was posed about Romney’s business career, the correct approach was to be gracious about his opponent’s success before pivoting to the message about the economy. But the president could never deliver the setup with anything but venom. He’d describe how both he and Romney went to the same law school, and how he became a community organizer while Romney went to make money. It was exactly the sharp-edged and boastful approach his coaches wanted him to avoid.

Part of the problem was that the president was uncomfortable with the advice he was getting. Early on in prep, Klain suggested he adopt Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense, which emphasized fast breaks for easy points and only a light defense against Romney’s shots. “You’ll win 162 to 160,” he said. (The president’s team, then and now, is scarily reliant on basketball metaphors.) Obama wasn’t a Westhead fan; he had once coached the Chicago Bulls to a dismal 28-54 record. And he thought the advice was wrong. He never believed he could win the debate with a “wide-open but soft” strategy. He thought he needed to attack Romney, to “get physical.” But he stuck with the broader strategy anyway. “He was right, and we were wrong,” Klain said later.

His advisers also wanted Obama to be the explainer, like Bill Clinton at the convention, but this misread the new expectations of the viewers. In the past, incumbents didn’t take shots at their challengers; it was considered unpresidential. The pugilistic 2012 GOP primary debates had helped change that, with the most combative candidate usually declared the winner. So now partisans on both sides were looking for their man to get tough. Later, David Axelrod tried to blame himself: “We were a little phobic about engagement [with Romney] and took it to an illogical extreme. We prepared him for a discussion instead of a debate.”

Obama hated debates. Not coincidentally, he knew he wasn’t very good at them. He had despised them in fact since 2004, when Alan Keyes scored points off him in their Senate campaign debates even though Keyes was an erratic candidate at best. In 2008, he lost almost every contest to Hillary Clinton. Even defeating John McCain never brought him much better than passing grades. Debates represented what he couldn’t stand about politics: superficial, canned answers with thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews by prattling pundits—the kind of Washington nonsense that he recently said makes him want to “go Bulworth.” He thought the format was artificial and the rules arbitrary, that they forced him into hackneyed emotional appeals and sound bites divorced from the actual work of the presidency.

Obama hadn’t gone into politics to be a public affairs entertainer, and his detachment from the idiocies of the process had helped him keep perspective. But he failed to internalize that, since the days when George Washington made sure he looked good on a horse, politicians have always been required to perform in the theater of the presidency. So Obama’s aloofness set in, as if he were too good for the part. When he was told during prep for Denver that his answer on infrastructure needed to be less than 60 seconds long, he said, “It really deserves sixty minutes.”

Lack of practice wasn’t the problem. After several warm-up sessions, the president had three full-dress mock debates in the basement of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and three more at the Westin in Henderson, Nevada, where the stage was an almost perfect replica of the one at the University of Denver. According to his coaches, he went 0-6 in debate prep. The president, who spent his days steeped in policy, was forever in the weeds, offering long, boring answers, talking too slowly, not responding crisply to John Kerry, who was playing Romney well, though he wasn’t such a cogent speaker himself.

When one of the eight or nine advisers who were there offered a critique, Obama didn’t disagree, as he had during his cranky 2008 debate prep, where he complained to aides that they were wasting his time. Now, he would say, “You’re right, that’s in the [briefing] book”—then fix nothing in his performance. He was falling back into his habit of humoring people whose tactical advice he didn’t agree with.

The prep was going so poorly that the team recommended Obama not discuss the infamous 47 percent video unless asked directly. In rehearsal, Obama kept blowing the topic. First, he would turn it into a defense of the social safety net that was too wonky. Then, when Kerry-as-Romney responded, saying that 47 million Americans were now on food stamps, Obama took the bait and went into a full-throated defense of food stamps, a sure loser in a message aimed at the middle class. One debate coach had a theory about what was in Obama’s head: “I’m up by seven [points] and can talk about liberal stuff that’s good for the country.”

It wasn’t that anyone was afraid of confronting Obama with the truth that he was doing a lousy job. “You had no energy again today and weren’t driving the message,” they told him. Obama shrugged and said, “I’ll do better.” But the sense of urgency wasn’t there. The president thought he had the election in the bag and wasn’t going to get too concerned about his aides’ anxieties over the first debate. From the early days against Hillary Clinton in 2007 to the period in 2010 when it didn’t look as if health care reform would pass, Obama refused to fully commit himself until he absolutely had to. He likes the idea of hitting the last-second shot. On the eve of the debate, the president told Axelrod: “I’ll be fine. I’m a game-day player.”

He wasn’t that day. Obama looked “logy,” as debate coach Michael Sheehan put it, listless, lacking in mental energy. It was, he said, like seeing someone run in a swimming pool.

A few days later, a chastened Obama told Patrick Gaspard of the DNC that he had seen an amusing viral video of the actor Samuel L. Jackson appearing in a family’s house to warn them about the stakes of the election. At one point, Jackson looks straight into the camera and says, “Wake the fuck up,” in the way that only he can.

“I didn’t realize he was talking to me,” the president said.

This story is adapted from Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on June 4.