And the debate post-mortem continues

The New Yorker‘s excellent editor, David Remnick, interviewed Obama’s old friends and mentors about his debate performance:

“The reason I hate campaigns,” Edley continued, “is that being right on the substance isn’t good enough. That’s why I’m an academic. Of course, Obama knows that, but it’s also a question of what he cares about. I admire him for caring more about the substance than the tactics even if it makes me grimace when I watch him. Why does he do it? Look, we all do things in the short term that are not consistent with a long-term goal, whether it’s failing to save for retirement or watching TV instead of doing your homework. It’s called being human rather than being the ideal client of your handlers. It makes it harder to achieve his goal, which is to get reëlected. But if you wanted authenticity you got it [on Wednesday] night. And, really, you got it in an unsurprising way. We know that Obama skews cerebral and that he has never liked debates as a way to engage issues. He has said that many times.”

I’m partially uncomfortable with this reading of the first presidential debate. Yes, Obama “skews cerebral” (whatever that means). And yes, it may be true that he dislikes debates. But part of the job of being President, or at least of running for reelection, is to confidently, assertively, and (if need be) aggressively point out the blatant lies and deceptions of your opponent — especially if that opponent swerved to the center just in time for the first debate after spending a year and a half saying something completely different.

Obama’s lack of the fighter instinct is worrying, and the implications extend beyond these presidential debates. We saw it in the healthcare fight in 2010, when he allowed Republicans to manhandle him and destroy his message because he simply didn’t have the will or the desire to hit back. We glimpsed it as well at the Democratic National Convention this year, when Bill Clinton provided an abler defense of the Obama administration than the president himself ever has. And we saw it in last Wednesday’s inaugural debate, when Mitt Romney lied and deceived his way to a startling victory — one free of facts and consistency, to be sure, but no less convincing as a piece of political theater. If Obama really intends to spend another four years in the White House, he may want to start by making sure he doesn’t let Romney run all over him with falsities and grand — but vague and mathematically impossible — budget plans.


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