My pep talk to fellow activists after the first debate

Everybody calm the f#*k down. We’ve got this.

Some of my friends are panicking because President Obama’s poll numbers have slipped a bit after the first debate. We don’t have to panic. Let’s put our nervous energy to better use.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “My pep talk to fellow activists after the first debate”

  1. For this audience, it may not hurt to mention regression to the mean in examining Romney’s lead in today’s poll.

    My big reason for concern is uncertainty as to whether Barack Obama still wants the damn job. Something was sucking the energy from him the other night, and I do not know what it is. If he has had his fill of the perks of the office, and has no more desire to engage in confrontations with knaves, that could bode ill for a second term, even if he wins big in November.

    1. Hmm, what could have drained his energy on his and Michelle’s 20th anniversary? I can’t come up with… oh, wait a minute!

      1. Yeah, I saw the Saturday Night Live skit the other night too, and I am not convinced that his anniversary would keep him from stopping Romney when he claimed to be in favor of covering pre-existing conditions too. The SNL skit was only exaggerating a little bit when their moderator says, “Mitt Romney just said he killed Osama bin Laden” and the Obama character shrugs and says, “You two go ahead.”

        If Pres. Obama were the kind of guy who could not focus on something important because of a wedding anniversary, he would not have been able to focus on countless other occasions which required his presence and attention, and his presidency would have collapsed in the first weeks after he took office. Distracted by the anniversary: I do not buy it.

        Big factor that some gasbags may have mentioned but I have not heard them: How much of Romney’s post-debate bounce arises from his having talked like a Democrat for much of it: in favor of regulations on business, in favor of saving Medicare, supporting insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. If he closed the gap between him and Obama by pretending to be Obama, that suggests the real reason not to panic now; there is time to show that there is only one Obama in the race, not two.

    2. I think that it’s an error to conclude that someone doesn’t want the job on the basis of 1.5 hours of ass-dragging, especially against the backdrop of an otherwise energetic campaign. Obama is simultaneously (a) doing one of the hardest jobs in the world and (b) being interviewed for the most important and prestigious job in the world. He’s spending more time and energy on each of those two tasks than most people spend on their one job. Looking tired for 90 minutes once isn’t good evidence that he doesn’t want the job when he’s putting so much energy into getting it.

      Furthermore, my theory of Obama’s poor performance in the debate turns partially on what I think are my insights into his intellectual character. As a liberal, often too open-minded to take my own side in an argument, if someone insists that I’ve got their position wrong, and repeats that passionately over and over again, part of me is going to start doubting that I DO have their position right. Worried that I’m being unfair, that alone is sometimes enough to get me to throttle back a bit on my insistence that it is, too, their positoin. This is not an irrational response, and I’ll bet that it’s part of what hammered Obama. The intellectually unscrupulous have many dialectical and rhetorical advantages over the intellectually honest.

      1. part of me is going to start doubting that I DO have their position right. Worried that I’m being unfair, that alone is sometimes enough to get me to throttle back a bit on my insistence that it is, too, their positoin.

        Maybe, but this old debater has a different take: I think the chances are very small that BHO was doubting his position against clear and blatant lies. IMHO he was just flummoxed on how to counter-punch, and since surely one objective that night was to avoid gaffes that the right-wing Noise Machine would ruthlessly distort, he played it safe.

        Too safe, in retrospect. A couple counter-punches or a good body blow would have knocked that blowhard off his game. I trust the team won’t let that happen again, but I suspect the Rmoney tactic will change, even though his team is third-rate.

  2. Since 1976, seven incumbent presidents have engaged in debates with challengers. According to post-debate news coverage of each, the challenger “won” the initial debate every time except 1996. Three incumbents were re-elected, and three were defeated.

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