Deep thought

Obama looked like he was playing it safe. That’s because he is safe. Unless we panic, scatter, and run.

NBC (and MSNBC) commentator Chuck Todd, not impressing me in general, said after the debate something like “President Obama acted like someone sitting on a big lead who decided that all he needed to do was play it safe and not say anything catastrophic.” That seems to be the consensus.

But as per my usual advice where Obama is concerned, namely sangfroid, we should remember that there’s a reason for this. Obama is sitting on a big lead, and all he needed to do was play it safe and not say anything catastrophic. Mission. Accomplished.

He’s got this one. Unless his supporters panic. I know that panic seems to be the popular strategy this evening—but I propose not adopting it.

Update: Sam Wang is thinking along the same lines. We need more neuroscientists in this job.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

28 thoughts on “Deep thought”

  1. Yep.

    And this was the night Andrew Sullivan jumped the Big Bird.
    Put this one in your files:

    10.29 pm. How is Obama’s closing statement so fucking sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight.

    1. My god. I was reading Andrew Sullivan too, and at this moment I realized, “this guy has too much influence in the media.” His hysterical reaction was disproportionate with what actually happened. Yet he has so many readers that many of them likely just adopted his view of the debates.

      Obama gave a solid, if sober, performance. Romney looked like a guy who had six Red Bulls. Yes, Romney scored a few rhetorical points (though frankly none that stick in memory) but he also spewed a lot of hogwash. And Obama actually had a couple of really good lines that were lost to the media, who were too busy pre-judging Obama as a failed debater.

      But then our Twitterized, one-line culture gets ahold of the event. Tweet-feeds at the bottom of the screen tell us all in clipped sentences how we should react. About four minutes into the debate, Tweets are already saying “Obama is losing” and that becomes the common wisdom, no matter what is actually happening. About half way through, CNN declares “Romney Wins.” Are we a society of half-wits who can’t even watch an entire debate without losing focus or just adopting someone else’s opinion wholesale?

      1. Are we a society of half-wits who can’t even watch an entire debate without losing focus or just adopting someone else’s opinion wholesale?

        Sorry Matt, but all available evidence indicates that indeed we are.

  2. Agreed, there’s no need for panic. But sitting on a lead doesn’t mean letting the other side score a bunch of unanswered points. The second time Romney called Obama a liar, he needed to strike back, and strike back hard. I expect we’ll see Obama’s more competitive side come out in the next two debates.

    In the meanwhile, watching not only the Republican spin team but the reporters celebrate Romney’s successful lie-fest is enough to make you sick. Yes, he “won.” But he won by cheating.

    1. It was the most fact-free, history-denying thing I’ve ever seen. But so far Mitt is being given a total pass on all of that, and I have zero confidence that will change in the slightest.

      1. Check this out from Josh:

        The numbers simply don’t add up. Over a few news cycles that can build up really fast. He says he’ll push massive upper income tax cuts and those have to come at the cost of much higher deficits or big tax hikes for middle income people. His campaign agenda is based on a massive deception. That’s the vulnerability Romney brings out of this debate. And it may be bigger than people realize.

        The emotions of the moment matter less than the “stickiness” factor that will manifest itself over the next few days…
        So for example, Romney wants to fire Big Bird eh? That’s no small aside. I suspect this meme will take wing.
        And if so how is that going to play to anybody who is not a Russ Limbaugh parrot?
        Not well I suspect.

        1. I think that many people are missing not one but two points.

          First, the debate will not change the outcome of the Presidential election in the sense that Mitt Romney will become president. Absent some other event(s) between now and November 6 that strongly favor his candidacy, Romney won’t win the election.

          Second, however, there are other offices up for grabs in November. As Sam Wang has pointed out, the size of a victory in the Presidential election often affects these other elections. As he said on September 29: “[E]nthusiasm for the top of the ticket has loud echoes in Senate and House races. If the Meta-Analysis is above Obama 330 EV on Election Eve, the Democrats should have quite a good shot at re-taking the House.” http://bit.ly/OFYJMe

          I believe that the weak performance by the President will cost one or two senatorial elections (but not enough for the control of the Senate to change hands) and any change of gaining control over the House.

          One substantive question: Can anyone tell me why the President could not explain how he got the $716 billion in cuts to Medicare and how (i) those cuts were a direct product of the insurance requirement under the ACA and (ii) actually extended the life of the Medicare trust fund by, I believe, eight years. His advisers must have known that Romney would use this as an attack point, so why wasn’t there a pre-packaged response?

          1. Can anyone tell me why the President could not explain how he got the $716 billion in cuts to Medicare and how (i) those cuts were a direct product of the insurance requirement under the ACA and (ii) actually extended the life of the Medicare trust fund by, I believe, eight years. His advisers must have known that Romney would use this as an attack point, so why wasn’t there a pre-packaged response?

            “Governor Romney, it is almost the same amount as the man you chose as a running mate!”

          2. This explains how the President was able to cut Medicare costs, but still give the same level of benefits: http://wapo.st/T7zymo

            It is significantly different than the $716 billion in cuts proposed by Ryan since much of the savings comes from the ACA (a/k/a Obamacare) that Ryan and Romney propose to abolish.

            Take a look at the article linked to above. Ask yourself how hard would it have been to distill the facts set forth therein into a short talking point to the Romney baloney that the President’s debate coaches must have known was coming. Someone committed debate malpractice here.

  3. Ditto no need for panic. Also:

    Will the other debates have the same “format”? If so, I suspect Romney has shot his wad. Obama does play a long game, and I suspect he did not throw away all those notes he seemed to be taking as Romney said things like “I do NOT plan to cut taxes on the rich.”

    –TP

    1. Ok, now I know Romney won the debate. You don’t talk about the long game if you’re winning the short game.

  4. Andrew Sullivan never goes half way when it comes to his freakouts. When he freaks out he does it with every ounce of his being.

    As, it seems, do a lot of other liberals.

    I’ve heard this all before. I heard it a lot in 2008. A lot of liberals seem to think the only winning strategy is to roast your opponents at every opportunity. That is simply not Obama’s style. It never has been. Yet, amazingly, he keeps winning.

    I wonder why that is?

    1. Yes, he keeps winning. And he’s a truly great president, in the administrative/policy sense. He can also inspire and motivate when he wishes. It just sucks that one of the few things he’s really bad at also happens to be one of the most important functions of the Presidency – the bully pulpit, the zero sum game of status, the dominant alpha establishing supremacy. Like it or not, this country deeply valorizes expressed confidence and willingness to fight. Face to face with a prepared opponent Obama showed serious weakness tonight, at the worst possible time, and while this may not keep him out of the White House it WILL affect downticket races. He has two more debates to change course; if this kind of s**t continues we are looking at a whole new race. For good or ill presidential debates are all about performance and image; sure, Romney’ll get hammered on his lying (hopefully), but the image that’ll linger outside of the blogosphere is a stammering, hesitant President. Right on the heels of that ridiculous video, no less. Jesus.
      I mean, for christ’s sake. This election is the best chance progressive/liberals have had in many, many years to chase teh crazy back into the closet where it belongs; now this.

  5. To go a little beyond the mano-a-mano cage match analysis, there are a number of Senate races that have taken a decisive and unexpected turn for the better since the “47%” fiasco. I’ll be surprised if Team Obama’s arrogance (yes, I said it, and complacence is a form of arrogance) doesn’t put a serious hurt on these races. A lot is riding on the President’s performance going into the final stretch, much more than just the White House. Rove, et al have shifted their millions (billions?) to down ticket races; the most potent equalizer is the President’s coattail. This debate is an unforced, if correctable, error, the kind that has real world effects. I was hoping to see the President’s team going for the kill in the home stretch, in the way LBJ buried Goldwater conservatism in ’64. This debate performance (and it is, of course, a performance – a clue perhaps to Obama’s true character that he couldn’t bring himself to rise to the occasion) does not portend well for surprise wins in the Senate, or taking the House. God dammit. If Obama doesn’t crush Romney from now on….whether it’s fair or right or just or anything else, these performances carry immense weight. If ObamaCo cannot rise to the occasion, this signifies a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition.

    1. I fully agree (as does Wang) that the effect of a real but small decline in Obama’s lead–the very likely result of the debate, which the President lost–will be on the downticket races. “We just lost ten House seats” might be a rational reaction to last night.

      1. I mean ten seats compared to the Democratic gains one would previously had predicted–not that Republicans will have a net gain of ten House seats.

  6. I’m not panicking, but I am pissed off. We’re back to the President Numbnuts Q. Accomodationist we had in 2009-11. It is shitty politics and shitty policy, and he has apparently learned NOTHING. “Surely these Republicans are reasonable men!” should be his new campaign slogan. Michelle or somebody needs to knock some sense into his moderately conservative head. He certainly didn’t lose the election tonight, but he probably kicked Florida away by acquiescing to that “$716 billion in Medicare cuts” bullshit. Maybe now he can kick Ohio away by admitting that Mitt actually saved the auto industry.

    Fucking bumblefuck. Put a wire up the back of his jacket and let Pelosi or Schumer or the Big Dog or anybody with a set feed him his lines at the next debate.

  7. What “Steven B” says! And “calling all toasters.” Goddammit, this is not just about the president. If he just protects his lead and has no coattails, then the multi-chinned wonder from Louisville becomes Senate Majority Leader. Which is probably fine with the president, who seems to fancy himself as a latter day Horatio at the Bridge. Or something. Jeebus.

  8. The way Rmoney characterized it, the $716 billion is not targeted at waste and fraud, but is a reduction across the board in payments to medical providers. The President really needed to answer that charge. His failure to do so after being hammered with it multiple times leads me to believe there could be some truth to Rmoney’s characterization. Rmoney didn’t answer Obama’s $7 trillion deficit accusation with anything specific enough to be convincing, but at least he denied it. Obama wouldn’t even do that, and it makes me wonder why.

  9. Digital Cuttlefish has written a very amusing Suess-like poem about last night’s debate.

    Here’s a clip:
    The candidates spar, and their minions’ opinions
    Will saturate all the political shows
    We’ll credit the better at spinning with winning—
    It’s Rorschach on steroids, as everyone knows

    Pretending it’s really a battle, they prattle,
    Releasing the zingers they’ve practiced so long;
    Attack—not the point, but the bearer—Jim Lehrer,
    Make Lehrer look weak, cos it makes you look strong.

  10. I tend, against my better judgment sometimes, to read Andrew Sullivan’s liveblogging of these events. And he was having an apoplectic, hyperventilating fit.

    I now read the morning updates on the debates, which say that Obama failed, was weak, etc etc. I think this is all a media-commentary-feedback loop: everyone says Obama failed, so it must be true.

    But if you watched the debates, my take was that he was even-tempered, strong, and probably a bit too wonky. He wanted to present himself as a man calmly in charge, not as a temperamental pugilist. And it worked…during the debates. The problem is that idiotic, temperamental commentators mischaracterize his demeanor, and that becomes the common wisdom.

    1. “The problem is that idiotic, temperamental commentators mischaracterize his demeanor, and that becomes the common wisdom.”

      I don’t agree that’s the problem.

      I think the commentators tend to portray the unreflective reactions of the unreflective voters … who constitute a large majority. When the commentators say Candidate A “lost” the debate they are saying that the viewers at home fell that way. Last night that was surely true.

      We smart, educated, truth-seeking wise students of policy and politics are not fooled, but we don’t carry much weight at the polls. And this smart, educated, truth-seeking wise student is wishing as hard as I can that O’Bama could somehow channel Bill Clinton for his next try. “Debating” isn’t a policy discussion meeting, it’s a sales opportunity. And the O’Bama we saw yesterday couldn’t have made much of a living in sales.

    1. Reminding them that Romney said that Detroit should go bankrupt would not have been Angry Black Man speak; it would have been common sense. Part of the “role of government” is to step in when markets fail. When the credit markets failed in 2008, bailing out Detroit fell within Obama’s vision of the role of government, but not Romney’s. Failing to capitalize on this is part of what has so many of us wondering what Team Obama was thinking last night.

      1. Plus, nobody like Romney. You risk a lot less contradicting a guy that is generally understood to be an unempathetic flip-flopper.

  11. Obama never does in debates what his supporters really want him to do. I clearly remember feeling exactly the same sensation in ’08 when he was on with McCain– then too he passed up just about every chance to hit at the other guy, even very obvious ones. An even temper and what DCA mentions, angry black man avoidance, are his default, and I think very deliberately adopted. The ’07 tape hoopla on Monday was no accident; it allowed two days of endless AM radio play of Jeremiah Wright just to pre-load any flashes of anger on Obama’s part.

    That said, romney did himself some good in maintaining the initiative and keeping up a steady stream of sound. He’d reduced himself to a caricature up to this point so anything beyond outright incoherency was going to do him good. Personally I think he was overly aggressive, at times supercilious, and there was that odd bouncing during his two-minute wrapup– testosterone or adrenal overload. He gave us the simulacrum of specificity, but as always with him the specificity was much more tied in with lies and distortions about Obama than it was about anything he might have had in mind. This is exactly what we might have anticipated from him because it’s what he did in the primaries, from what I remember.

    Obama was in a hard spot last night. It’s demeaning for someone who’s been an all-day executive for four years and is a mediator by temperament to be reduced to this level, and without any audience reaction to boot. I wouldn’t underestimate the effect of being in a roomful of silent people, something I haven’t seen any discussion of anywhere; it’s less of an issue for romney because he carries his audience around in his own head, but Obama is kind of an introvert and would have responded to some signs of audience acceptance. He did seem completely gobsmacked by the new version of romney’s tax schemes, and his timing was off all night. But he’s tended to be that way in debates most of the time.

    It seems to me his best tack might be something along the lines of “that simply isn’t accurate,” and focusing it on about four or five key points, rather than tearing into romney’s obvious and multitudinous targeting opportunities. It would fit his temperament and stance better to do it that way rather than attack outright.

    One thing that struck me from the first time I saw Obama deal with questions was that it’s obvious he’d never taught undergraduates (in fact it was probably the first thing I said to myself about him). Only bright and highly-motivated law students. That’s been a real handicap for him in the context of a presidential campaign. Maybe it’s too late for him to learn that pitch, but it’s what he needs. It’s only a small cut above what works in retail politics.

    I do hope he finds a stance that’s comfortable for him the next two times.

  12. Maybe, too, Obama’s stiffness was partly the result of being over-coached. I haven’t seen that possibility mentioned anywhere and the pundit wisdom seems to be that he didn’t spend any time prepping, but I think maybe he suffered from having too many possible directions or instructions to keep in mind. When he starts his responses hesitantly, which he normally does, it seems to me he’s making up his mind which rehearsed or coached tack to take, and if he has too many of them he seems to feel too exposed. Plus there was that silent audience.

  13. My take is that this is much worse than Andrew is allowing. I know that if I weren’t solidly grounded in my dislike for Romney and had less information re:reality, I would have been inclined to buy into Romney’s position. I have to assume that most undecideds are low information voters and there is also a group that is part of Obamna’s support that also is susceptible to the extensive lies put forth. Those lies must be countered, there are many folk who will buy into Romney’s apparent position.

    What happened – I think there are two factors. First, Obama is going to have to learn to deal with an obnoxious liar. Personally, I find it difficult to deal with such and I don’t think Obama is much good at it – He looked like he couldn’t imagine what bizarre statement was going to issue from Romney’s mouth next. He was unprepared – How do you prepare for a liar who may/will change his positions on the fly. It’s difficult, but he must figure it out. I have my ideas as to how to do it, but that is another post. The second problem is more difficult. On occasion, Obama has seemed unwilling to confront angry aggressive people (aggressive white men?). I recall an incident with McCain well before the election – I don’t recall what Obama had said, but my take then was that he was objectively correct, but he apologized, almost abjectly to McCain after McCain threw a tantrum. It seems that this has appeared in other circumstances. The appearance of aggressiveness seems to make Obama very uncomfortable – as though he must do something about it.

    So, He must change his preparation style from one based on facts and previous statements to dealing with an aggressive horse’s ass who will say anything – I’m not sure he can do that,but he must. He’s going to have to stop worrying about making a mistake and must hit back when Romney lies, and hit back hard – that will be difficult for him to do, but he can laern to do it in a quiet way that will not be aggressive but assertive

Comments are closed.