Earlier, I wrote that Ronald Brownstein had the best explanation for Barack Obama’s debate flop on Wednesday, but Dana Milbank has a pretty good analysis at the Washington Post, too. Incumbents tend to live in White House bubbles, surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear, as I noted before the debate. However, this particular incumbent has spent the last three-plus years deliberately avoiding the press, which means he’s not at all used to having his wisdom challenged:
In the hours after the Republican challenger Mitt Romney embarrassed the incumbent in their first meeting, Obama loyalists expressed puzzlement that the incumbent had done badly. But Obama has only himself to blame, because he set himself up for Wednesday’s emperor-has-no-clothes moment. For the past four years, he has worked assiduously to avoid being questioned, maintaining a regal detachment from the media and other sources of dissent and skeptical inquiry.
Obama has set a modern record for refusal to be quizzed by the media, taking questions from reporters far less often than Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush. Though his opponent in 2008 promised to take questions from lawmakers like the British prime minister does, Obama has shied from mixing it up with members of Congress, too. And, especially since Rahm Emanuel’s departure, Obama is surrounded by a large number of yes men who aren’t likely to get in his face.
This insularity led directly to the Denver debacle: Obama was out of practice and unprepared to be challenged. The White House had supposed that Obama’s forays into social media — town hall meetings with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the like — would replace traditional presidential communication. By relying on such venues, Obama’s argument skills atrophied, and he was ill-equipped to engage in old-fashioned give and take.
We’ve been talking about this for months. Obama hasn’t had a full press conference in over six months. He’s been focusing his individual attention on hard-hitting political news outlets like, er … Entertainment Tonight, People, and Glamour, a particularly apt outlet. The White House press corps got so fed up in August that open rebellion broke out, with Jake Tapper taking the lead. Obama briefly appeared without notice at a White House press briefing and took a few questions, only to return to the Tiger Beat circuit.
Milbank offers an optimistic assessment of Obama’s future debate performances:
Luckily for Obama, the debates are, as one adviser put it Thursday, “a three-game series.” Romney’s after-debate glow will likely fade as he attempts to explain his dubious assertions that he would not reduce taxes paid by the wealthy and that his tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit. But even if Obama ultimately prevails, he should remember Denver as a warning: He does himself no favors by hiding from tough questioning.
No doubt, Obama will prepare better for the next two debates. However, this isn’t something that can be fixed overnight, if Obama intends to fix it at all. Has he held an open press conference in the last two days? Will he do so before the next debate? Obama is delivering the kinda-snappy comebacks literally a day late and figuratively a dollar short that he needed Wednesday night, but he’s putting them up on the Teleprompter to do so, too.
Obama has to be able to ad-lib those lines, not wait for them to scroll up. He’s out of practice, and I doubt seriously that he’s going to subject himself to any tough questioning in the last four weeks of this election to bone up on how to do it. And with the Obama administration finally getting around to admitting that terrorists successfully conducted an attack on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi, resulting in the first US Ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in 33 years, isn’t it very, very curious that our President has not appeared before the media and the American public to answer questions about that, at least?