I suspect this New Yorker article
is closer to the truth than the Obama--was-just-playing-Romney view.
Obama’s Old Friends React to the Debate
When Barack Obama was a student at Harvard Law School, he was never known as a particularly good debater. In class, if he thought that a fellow student had said something foolish, he showed no forensic bloodlust. He did not go out of his way to defeat someone in argument; instead he tried, always with a certain decorous courtesy, to try to persuade, to reframe his interlocutor’s view, to signal his understanding while disagreeing. Obama became president of the law review—the first African-American to do so—but he won as a voice of conciliation. He avoided the Ames Moot Court Competition, where near contemporaries like Cass Sunstein, Deval Patrick, and Kathleen Sullivan made their names.
Laurence H. Tribe, a leading constitutional-law scholar and Obama’s mentor at Harvard, told me after Wednesday night’s debate with Mitt Romney
, “Although I would have been happier with a more aggressive debate performance by the President, I’ve had to remind myself that Barack Obama’s instincts and talents have never included going for an opponent’s jugular. That’s just not who he is or ever has been.”
Some of Obama’s old friends from Harvard and from his early days as an organizer and as a neophyte politician in Chicago were disappointed that Obama so clearly lost the debate—at least on the level of sheer performance if not substance
—but the tone of that performance did not come entirely as a shock.
Christopher Edley, Jr., who also taught Obama at Harvard, served as an informal adviser, and is now dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, laughed when I asked him if he was disappointed by the President’s strangely absent demeanor and pedagogical answers. “I’m a professor and he was a professor: What’s the problem?!” he said. “I usually don’t treat being professorial as a problem. It’s usually great in my book, but he played in that particular comfort zone of his and it was a mismatch for the occasion. I’ve been in too many debate-prep sessions to count with Presidential candidates—I worked with Dukakis, Gore, Dean, and Obama, in 2008—and there are some basics that the President just didn’t check off. Most glaringly, for starters, he failed to look into the camera for his closing statement.
“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.”
Obama’s friends from his days as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side and his first campaigns in the city concentrated less on his forensic shortcomings; they were more frustrated with what they saw as Romney’s capacity to get away with inconsistencies and worse.
Will Burns, a Chicago alderman, who, as a student, worked for Obama in his (successful) 1996 campaign for the Illinois State Senate and his (unsuccessful) 2000 campaign for Congress, said that the format was too “loosey-goosey” for Obama, who failed to get aggressive with Romney.
“The President has always been someone who takes the truth seriously and has a great faith in the American people and their ability to handle big ideas,” Burns said. “He doesn’t patronize them. He uses the campaign as an educative process. He wants to win but also wants to be clear about his ideas…. He took complex ideas like Medicare and the debt and tried to explain it to people so they can understand them while at the same time not being patronizing. And he is doing this with an opponent who is completely dissembling on every issue! There is a certain brazenness about Romney. It’s like [Stephen] Colbert talking about ‘truthiness.’ Romney stood there, with his hair and his jaw and his terrific angles—and he lied! About taxes, about Medicare. Obama pushed back on the five-trillion-dollar tax cut or the way Romney’s version of Medicare would destroy Medicare as we know it. And Romney just tilted his head and said, Oh, no, it won’t. At some point, you have to believe that the facts speak for themselves.”
Burns recalled that when Obama ran for Congress against the incumbent Bobby Rush and a fellow state senator Donnie Trotter, he would often find the debates frustrating, even absurd. “Obama always tried to keep his cool,” Burns said. “I sensed that last night. He was trying to keep his cool.”
Maybe so, said the Reverend Alvin Love, of the Lilydale First Baptist Church, on the South Side, “but I thought the President was a little laid back. Romney was really aggressive, even overly aggressive and got away with some stuff. The President stuck to the issues and took great pains to explain his positions and sometimes that can come off, in that setting, as a little cold. I thought he held his own but I guess when you get into that first debate, you want your guy to blow the competition away, and that didn’t happen.”
Reverend Love grew close to Obama when Obama was a community organizer. He could tell that Obama was never particularly comfortable in the debate format. “He’s better out there by himself,” he said. “His personality has always been kind of contemplative. In that kind of format, when you are contemplative, it makes you seem not as quick on the draw.”
Johnnie Owens, one of Obama’s fellow organizers on the South Side, told me, “I’ve seen him better. Some people said he came off flat and he did. He did his best, but a number of times when Romney was asked, Barack kept his head down too long and it made it look as if he didn’t want to deal with what Romney was saying, as if he was reading something. It would have looked better if he had lifted his head up and looked Romney in the eye.
“The job of being President,” Owens went on, “you can see it in his face—that level of seriousness, having to do what he does, and then go debate. His hair has gotten grayer so quickly! Mine, too, but for him it’s almost overnight. You can really sense the stress on him.”