On the eve of the October 16 presidential debate, Democrats expect President Obama to improve upon his prior performance. But while Obama will be sure to hit most of the key talking points he missed on October 3, his past history raises questions about his capacity to deliver the highly partisan, aggressive arguments that Joe Biden energized Democrats with last week. Obama gave a lackluster performance against Hillary Clinton before the 2008 California primary, and did not stand out in any of the multiple candidate debates before that time (where he is best remembered negatively for telling Clinton she was “likeable enough.”). Obama is great at using sarcasm and pointed partisan attacks in galvanizing large crowds at rallies, but shirks from this role when his opponent is in the same room. Since the October 16 Town Hall debate format does not lend itself to aggressive attacks, Obama faces a tough challenge to ensure his rally mentality dominates.
President Obama’s listless performance in the first debate revived Mitt Romney's candidacy, and it reminded me of his 2008 California primary debate against Hillary Clinton. I was mystified throughout that debate why he was not attacking Clinton on a range of issues, and why he was so deferential and respectful to an opponent that was blitzing him with negative television ads.
We forgot about Obama’s weak debate performances in 2008 because he was such a powerful and inspiring figure at campaign events. GOP presidential candidate John McCain was such a weak debater and came off as a candidate past his prime that we misinterpreted Obama’s victories over him as evidence of his debating prowess.
The “Angry Black Man” Theory
Many attribute Obama’s reluctance to attack, interrupt and aggressively fight to win debates to his fear of being perceived unfavorably as an “angry black man.” This may have been a factor in 2008 when many voters watching debates were getting their first sustained exposure to Obama . But the American public now knows the President, and does not see him as “angry.” This rationale no longer explains the President’s reluctance to mix it up.
Obama debates like he governs, not like how he campaigns. We should not have been so surprised that the same President that continually sought common ground with Republicans out to destroy him went out of his way to downplay differences with Mitt Romney during the first debate.
The reason we were surprised is that Obama has done a remarkable job on the campaign trail in 2012, equalizing if not exceeding his 2008 effort. He has been far more partisan and attacking this year than in 2008, and has not hesitated to even ridicule the Romney-Ryan-GOP agenda.
Obama’s Internal Conflict
Obama is torn between his desire to get along and reach “bipartisan” policies with opponents and a fierce competitive streak that pushes him to win at everything from elections to pick up basketball games. In the first debate Obama's “get along” side prevailed; the Obama we see on October 16 will be in full “winning is everything” mode.
Fortunately for Democrats, Obama enters the debate with an advantage that Ronald Reagan had after Walter Mondale shellacked him in their first debate in 1984: he is guaranteed to improve on his prior performance. In contrast, Romney at best can equal what he did last time. This makes it difficult for the second debate to help Romney.
Prior to the 1984 second debate pundits argued that voters simply needed to see Reagan still standing to conclude that he was still their man. He barely met this low bar: despite ending the debate with a long, confused monologue that never ended and reflected the mental health issues that became more obvious through his second term, Reagan was declared to have won or tied his final presidential debate.
Obama is sure to do better in this debate than the last, and this improvement will send a message that the President is back on track. But don’t expect him to match Joe Biden’s fighting spirit and emotional commitment to Democratic Party ideals that the nation saw last week; that won’t occur until the debate ends and Obama gets back to the large rallies where he feels unrestrained in attacking his adversaries.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century