Peggy Noonan’s column sums things up nicely:

It puts forth the reasons why the first debate performances fundamentally altered the race and illuminates some basic character traits in Obama that probably hinder his ability to realistically access a political situation. She further discusses Bob Woodward’s new book “The Price of Politics,” which goes into this angle even more deeply.

Any individual, from whatever ideological background, will likely have difficulty dealing effectively with unpredictable, challenging, random situations when most of what they’ve faced previously has been tightly-controlled, somewhat orchestrated for them, and they’ve been made to always feel (deserved or not, immaterial) that they’re “the smartest person in the room,” as the old saying goes.

Or, to put it even more succinctly, the title of a great book by Wess Roberts: “Straight A’s Never Made Anybody Rich.”

You get the point. Even though sometimes a straight-A person might be a huge success, it’s more often than not the reasonably-bright person who struggles and fights in real life to achieve a difficult goal who ends up being the most successful, because of the lessons they learn along the way.

Obama is not that person, and his demeanor in the first debate (actually, in all of them) reflected such, such a sense of outrage and personal insult that his qualifications as “the smartest guy in the room” was actually even being questioned, that he came across as detached and condescending to an astonishing degree.

Not necessarily to his committed followers, who will love him and his policies no matter what.

Not necessarily to his ardent detractors, who will oppose him and his policies at every turn.

But to the Great Undecideds, who saw two things, neither of which have anything to do with Liberal vs. Conservative ideology:

1. They saw a smug, inflexible, condescending, unyielding person who revealed his “smallness” when challenged on equal terms (for perhaps the first time in his life)
2. They saw a reasonable, competent man who knew the issues and presented himself as a plausible alternative President.

That is why this race has gone from “comfortable Obama” to “toss up.” No other reason. Not because of taxes or Medicare or food stamps or Libya.

Because of emotional smallness vs. heretofore unknown resonableness.


  • Anonymous

    The debates were game changers because: a) Romney decisively won the first one on substance and passion, and b) Obama lost the last one on demeanor. The first was a rout, the second was a close shave. But the end result is that Obama lost a lead, and could not recover it. People not only saw a bad Obama, they simultaneously saw a good Romney.

    I think the bottom line reason for the lackluster debate #1 performance was because he truly believes his crap. He believes his own press releases. I realize that is a natural temptation as a president – you get too used to having your way and believing your own nonsense. But i think the reason it went to historic levels with him as described by Noonan was because he has a paper thin resume. No jarring vocational setbacks or failures that would wake him up from the fantastical liberal dreams he was dreaming.
    As a comparison, Clinton lost the governorship after being the golden boy and acting like Obama; that episode marked him from that point on. Obama’s had nothing like that (unless you want to count a US Rep loss much earlier in his career, which I would argue is on the same level). This is the impact of experience and tenure – to season you towards the highs and lows you face, and to maintain a good trajectory thru both.
    In fact, things were looking so good for O that when that first debate rolled around, he was unready. He thought he could mail it in. He thought that all he needed to do was stand there as “Caricature Mitt” made a fool of himself and showed America what a dunce he was. He bought his own nonsense, believed it would speak for itself.
    But when the results came in, lo and behold America liked Romney a whole heck of a lot better than the day before – and thought Obama was not as good as promoted in 2008.

  • Steve Feinstein

    Perhaps you are correct.
    But we’re clearly into pretty subtle territory here. I truly believe that it was Romney’s demeanor vs.Obama’s demeanor that carried that day with the Undecideds, not any specific ‘actionable ideas.’ What was it about Obama’s background that made him falter in that debate? Could have been something as simple as having an off night. But, it could possibly have had something to do with Obama’s past (again, always being told he’s the ‘smartest guy in the room’) that made him singularly unprepared for the very notion that Romney (behind about 5% in most polls at the time) could battle him on equal–or better–terms.
    Could be.
    Could also be I’m just over-thinking this.

  • Steve Feinstein

    I appreciate Steve M’s nicely-expressed comments. No need to apologize for the “novella.” His comments are more than worthy of serious consideration, but please bear in mind that the first debate resulted in a precipitous decline in Obama’s numbers, a decline that debates 2 and 3 failed to reverse. We’re simply exploring what the causes for Obama’s decline following debate #1 could have been.

    • Steve M.

      I agree … Obama clearly lost the first debate quite soundly and it had a relatively dramatic effect on polling and almsot certainly on the election proper. However, I think that the things you identified as the reason for these changes are just off-base. I would see a perceived lack of passion and lack of understanding of issues and solutions as the reason for the loss and subsequent decline.
      I thought your comments made it seem like the debate altered people’s perception of the candidates personality and “style” … and I think that is the battle Obama has never trailed on … it’s the battle Romney has been losing since the start of primary. I thought that people still “like” Obama (the person) better but came away feeling that Romney was much more prepared to lead the country — because he cared more and had better, more actionable ideas.

  • Steve M.

    Huh, I find this funny for two anecdotal pieces of evidence from my life.
    The words you use to describe number 1 are interesting … because “smug and condescending” are two of the exact words my mother (a “Great Undecided” who I have heard change her mind 3 times in the last 3 months) used to describe Romney following the second debate. She complained that he “talked down” to the general public and treated the crowd like they were idiots.
    Also, your characterization of the successful person as the reasonably bright person who, “struggles and fights” to acheive success and that OBAMA is not that person, strikes me as odd. This time, my wife — who votes in every election, but attempts to remain relatively apolitical outside of the polling curtain and is also likely in the “Undecided” camp — says that the thing that bothers her very much about Romney is that he’s never had to have that struggle and is likely out-of-touch … “he doesn’t seem to understand that not everyone has rich parents and high-powered connections to lean on when they are getting started … that some people can be talented and work hard but still not find terribly much financial success because they chose the profession, didn’t have the capital to get started or didn’t know the right people at the right time … he seems convinced that because he worked hard, anyone who works hard could have the same success and that simply isn’t true.”
    I have to agree with her on this one. I think if you removed the names, people would have difficulty seeing the half-black, roughly middle-class, kid raised by his maternal grandmother, who then worked his way through prep-school on scholarship, went to an average college, before earning good enough grades to transfer to one of the top schools in the nation, volunteering in the inner city and earning his way into HLS and graduating mcl as the “straight As, never been challenged” version of this comparison as opposed to the son of privelaged, former governor & CEO who finished in the top 5% of his business school class, became a well-paid management consultant and found a PE firm with money from his and his father’s rich friends, and went on to make himself and his investors much more money. I’m not sure people would see the former as the “never had to struggle for success” story.

    • Steve M.

      I apologize for the novella/thesis in the form of a comment.