Originally published in Official Artur Davis
To most observers, Barack Obama’s poor night in Denver seems as inexplicable on reflection as it did in the moment. There is arguably nothing in presidential debate memory that matches it for improbability. Richard Nixon’s darting eyes and sweaty brow in 1960, Ronald Reagan’s distracted presence in 1984, Michael Dukakis’ mechanical dullness in 1988, Al Gore’s snide sighs in 2000 all resurrected conspicuous enough traits in their personas for even casual observers. The surprises, if any existed, were only that the mask slipped so revealingly, and with such ill timing.
But Obama’s plodding, sluggish, inert set of reflexes were a wholly unanticipated calamity. By any objective lens, Obama has been a famously intuitive performer who revels on the high wire—from the keynote in Boston in 2004 to the high risk Jeremiah Wright talk to the masterpiece victory speeches in Iowa and South Carolina in 2008 that played such an underrated role in crafting Obama’s charismatic image when large swaths of the country were just beginning to pay attention. There was none of that verve in the rambling opening answer on a thoroughly predictable question on jobs, none of that stage presence in the times Obama stood mute when Mitt Romney contradicted him on tax breaks, Medicare cuts, or the machinations around the Simpson Bowles Commission. Instead, it was the hard to disguise tentativeness of a job applicant who knows too well the gaps in his resume.
I’ll venture one theory that reconciles Obama’s past with his struggles the other night. For all of the president’s oratorical prowess, it is worth noting that Obama’s past high notes all revolved around one signature theme: a refrain against the costs of a divided culture, polarized elections, and all manner of American gridlock. It is a mantra that Obama the challenger and rising star wore very well, but it was also the cry of an outsider trying to crash the gates. The fact that Obama has not cultivated a presidential vision that is remotely as compelling as the rationale for his insurgency four years ago was on display in Denver, and a more conspicuous liability than the absence of a script or a teleprompter.
To be sure, the ranks of high level American politicians not named Bill Clinton (or at their best Paul Ryan and Chris Christie) that can make a resonant, eloquent case for the nuts and bolts of policy are depressingly thin. Notably, the skill is one at which Obama is relatively undistinguished. His one high-profile address on healthcare reform in September 2009 is memorable solely for a Republican congressman’s outburst during the talk. The congressional address almost exactly two years later on the administration’s jobs package was equally forgettable, and not one of Obama’s State of the Unions ranks among his greatest hits.
In other words, in hundreds of speeches as a candidate and president, an exceptionally eloquent man has no real history of being terribly persuasive on the specifics of governance, or the intricate layers of policymaking. As a substitute, Obama has deployed a conventionally partisan rhetorical account of Republican priorities as Trojan horses for Republican money interests—a technique that is guaranteed to fare better in a stump speech than the more anodyne setting of a debate.
Obama’s weakness the other night was not simply a dearth of high flown language. Much more decisive was the silence in the face of Romney’s aggressiveness and the consistent inability to seize openings, from Romney’s imprecision on tax deductions and spending cuts to Paul Ryan’s affinity for George W. Bush’s Social Security reforms. But the times Obama seemed stuck in cement tactically are surely connected to the president’s continuing lack of imagination in the description of his own agenda.
The fundamental shortcomings of the Obama record—a lackluster job market with historically high levels of long term unemployment, an explosion in deficits well after the expiration of the emergency recovery efforts in 2008 and 2009, an abject inability to escape gridlock—would constrain Obama at the peak of his rhetorical efforts. And it is this rudimentary fact about the last month of this campaign that makes October 2 in Denver such a potential pivot: for 90 minutes, Americans were treated to an uninspired defense of muddling through, and to a case that was offered in terms not much more galvanizing than those presented by a hundred Democratic congressmen on the ballot next month. It felt like a train wreck.