Did hubris catch up with Team Obama?

posted at 2:42 pm on October 4, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

As the Republican primary process wound down and Mitt Romney emerged as the likely candidate in spring of 2012, President Obama was itching to take him on, according to Glenn Thrush’s inside look at the Obama campaign, “Obama’s Last Stand.” How to take Romney on was another story, as the campaign waffled between pegging Romney as a man with “no core” or a “rotten core.” But the issue wasn’t just one of a strategy disagreement, as Thrush explained:

“Inside the White House, Romney was such an object of ridicule that it was hard to take him seriously, difficult to narrow the mass of contempt into a single, coherent narrative for not electing the presumptive GOP nominee.”

Was that the attitude President Obama brought to his three days of debate prep in Nevada? Obama certainly seemed to have trouble Wednesday “narrowing the mass of contempt into a single, coherent narrative for not electing the presumptive GOP nominee.” He meandered and stuttered in lengthy answers the media is generous in calling “professorial.” He sounded unprepared, pulling the same lines from his stump speeches again and again. He reached for straw men Mitt Romney had already dismantled.

The president inexplicably took Social Security off the table as a campaign issue, declaring, “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position.” That exchange came after Romney had already dominated a large portion of the debate, batting back hard at Obama’s description of his tax plan and pulling anecdotes and factoids together effortlessly. Obama reminded me of a wide receiver who’s been hit hard on a couple of attempted catches, and starts hearing footsteps every time he runs a route. The normally confident president got alligator arms on the Social Security issue and was afraid to lay out for the ball.

Obama supporters were blaming moderator Jim Lehrer just minutes into the debate for letting Romney control the clock. But the truth is Romney didn’t have the ball for longer, as the MSNBC crew kept claiming in their post-debate coverage; he just did more with it. Obama spoke for fully three minutes longer than Romney, according to the CNN live clock.

A parody Twitter account was created to embody liberals’ frustration with a debate that veered from its intended structure. Silent Jim Lehrer mumbled his way to almost 10,000 followers.

But how silent was Jim Lehrer, really? A check of Wednesday’s transcript shows he spoke about 1,400 words. When Lehrer moderated the first McCain-Obama debate in 2008, he tallied about 1,200 words, so his performance wasn’t out of character. The transcript also indicates he interjected more often than the average presidential debate moderator over the past three cycles. Transcripts show most moderators interject between 60 and 70 times, but Lehrer’s tally was in the 80s Wednesday.

Whatever the numbers, it did feel rough-and-tumble while remaining civil and substantive, and that’s what I appreciated about it. What happened to the days when windy, contentious Lincoln-Douglas-style debates were upheld by the media as the debate ideal? What happened to bemoaning a showboating moderator or a public that doesn’t digest in bigger chunks than soundbites?

Back in 2010, NBC’s Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell were using the free-wheeling, high-minded Lincoln-Douglas debates as a foil for novice Tea Party candidates’ performances in Senate races in Nevada and Delaware. As with discussions about entitlements after Ryan was added to the ticket, the press only wants a substantial conversation when Obama’s guaranteed to win it.


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