Before things get started this evening and we slip into history, I wanted to take a moment to look back at the last debate and also forward to this one.
Everybody has a theory about why President Obama so underperformed in the first debate. Indeed, it’s drilled so deeply into many people’s psyches that it’s become almost a prism into their own hopes, wants and insecurities. Basically, I don’t think there’s any real knowing. I also suspect that if most people watched the debate again now they’d be surprised at how relatively normal it seems. Not that Obama did great. But the whole thing has become so vast and hyper-discussed and stressed-over that it’s become vastly bigger in the retelling than it really was.
So with all that here’s my theory. I won’t say this is ‘why’ he did poorly. I’ll just put it forward as what resonated for me.
I remember the first presidential debate back in 2004, one John Kerry was widely believed to have won. At the time, as I was watching President Bush, what I kept picking up was that he looked a bit pissed, offended. And when I watched the Obama-Romney debate two weeks ago the first thing I remember thinking, once things got underway, was that I saw the same thing in Obama. Not just “I don’t want to be up here” but more “What am I doing up here? Who is this guy?”
We should remember that incumbent underperformance in first debates is almost the rule: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Bush and Obama. Not Clinton, but he’s Bill Clinton. And at least in the case of Bush and Obama, I think it’s something like this. We talk a lot about ‘the bubble’ and how President’s can lose touch. But not so much in this particular way.
When you’re President you go almost four years with no really letting you have it to your face. People in public crap on you right and left, sure. And hopefully you have advisors who will be frank with you. But that’s not the same as disrespecting you to your face. Taking it to you in a very uncontrolled environment.
I suspect that as much as you prepare, as much as you know it’s a debate, for all that stuff, I suspect that level of inevitable coddling has some real shaping effect on the psyche. And it’s probably pretty hard to fully prepare to go back.
Like I said, I’m not saying this is why Obama had a bad night. There must have been a lot of different reasons. He seems to have been unprepared. But that’s the part I take away from it.
In a few moments, a post on what to expect tonight.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.