It’s amazing what happens when the emperor is exposed as having no clothes, eh? Suddenly, the media begin asking questions that everyone else asked four years ago about a man who hadn’t even completed one term as Senator and who had no executive experience, running in a distinctly anti-Republican political environment. Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post wonders whether Barack Obama has always been as mediocre a candidate as he was last Wednesday night in the debate:
Obama’s debate performance also raised a bigger question: Is he overrated as a candidate?
Four years ago, that question would have been unimaginable. After all, this was a man who in his first run for national office not only outmaneuvered the Clinton family to win the Democratic presidential nomination but also went on to claim a 365-electoral-vote general-election landslide against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). And, oh by the way, Obama did all that while raising $750 million (including $500 million online) — a sum that shattered all fundraising records.
Well, we’re finding out more about how Team Obama shattered those fundraising records, too. But Cillizza is wrong about the question being “unimaginable”; plenty of us “imagined” it at the time, and not just about Obama as a candidate. He was easily the least-experienced major-party nominee in decades, with no military, business, or executive experience prior to his candidacy. The only elections he won were in a heavily Democratic region — Chicago — and against Alan Keyes in his one statewide race in 2004. Obama had never distinguished himself as a legislative leader. His only real claim to fame was that he wrote two memoirs and gave a great speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
In fact, not only were many of us “imagining” that question, we were pointing out Obama’s flaws and foibles on the campaign trail, most of which the press ignored in favor of the Obama narrative of Hope and Change. Cillizza tacitly acknowledges the warning signs in 2008:
And yet, even in that campaign, there was some evidence that candidate Obama had flaws — the most notable of which was that while he delivered solid performances in the debates against McCain, he was far from the champion performer that many expected. (The coverage largely glossed over that fact because a) the race had already heavily tilted in Obama’s favor by that point, making the debates less meaningful, and b) McCain was a decent debater at best, which made Obama’s performance seem stronger in comparison.)
The narrative has changed this year, or perhaps it’s better to say that Obama has forced the narrative to change:
Fast-forward to this campaign — and specifically its last two major public events — and you see Obama’s flaws as a candidate in starker relief.
His acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was flat and, rhetorically, felt like a patchwork effort — five or six different speeches all clumped into a single address. His debate performance was glum and defensive, leaving anyone who watched with the overwhelming sense that the president would have rather been anywhere but sharing the stage with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).
The New York Times says the same thing today, claiming that Obama has so much disdain for Romney that he couldn’t overcome it in the debate:
Mr. Obama does not like debates to begin with, aides have long said, viewing them as media-driven gamesmanship. He did not do all that well in 2008 but benefited from Senator John McCain’s grumpy performances. Mr. Obama made clear to advisers that he was not happy about debating Mr. Romney, whom he views with disdain. It was something to endure, rather than an opportunity, aides said.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was recruited to play Mr. Romney. The preparation team was kept small. The most important players were Mr. Axelrod; David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser; and Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director. Others included Joel Benenson, the president’s pollster; Ronald A. Klain, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff; and Robert Barnett, a longtime Democratic debate coach.
By the time Mr. Obama retreated to Nevada for a final couple days of practice, the debate prep team was getting by on as little as three hours of sleep a night as they crafted answers and attack lines. Mr. Kerry played a range of Mr. Romneys — aggressive, laid back, hard-edge conservative — and got in the president’s face, according to people in the room. Mr. Obama’s alternating performances left aides walking off Air Force One in Denver looking worried.
Well … so what? No one likes debating a political opponent. A professional overcomes that and muscles up. A dilettante uses that as an excuse not to properly prepare. It’s pretty clear which showed up on Wednesday.
Cillizza tries to finish on a positive note for Obama, underscoring his rhetorical gifts, which were entirely outside of evidence in these last two opportunities. There’s no mistaking the shift in narrative, however, and it’s not just the media wondering whether Obama’s overrated as a candidate. It’s also going to extend to whether Obama has been overrated as a President — and why the media has worked so hard in overrating him as both.