Saturday, October 6, 2012

"That's just not who he is or ever has been"

David Remnick, author of the biography about President Obama titled The Bridge, talked to several of Obama's old friends about his debate performance this week. Here's how Remnick summarized what he heard.
When Barack Obama was a student at Harvard Law School, he was never known as a particularly good debater. In class, if he thought that a fellow student had said something foolish, he showed no forensic bloodlust. He did not go out of his way to defeat someone in argument; instead he tried, always with a certain decorous courtesy, to try to persuade, to reframe his interlocutor’s view, to signal his understanding while disagreeing. Obama became president of the law review—the first African-American to do so—but he won as a voice of conciliation.
And here are a few quotes:
Laurence Tribe: “Although I would have been happier with a more aggressive debate performance by the President, I’ve had to remind myself that Barack Obama’s instincts and talents have never included going for an opponent’s jugular. That’s just not who he is or ever has been.”

Christopher Edley: “The reason I hate campaigns is that being right on the substance isn’t good enough. That’s why I’m an academic. Of course, Obama knows that, but it’s also a question of what he cares about. I admire him for caring more about the substance than the tactics even if it makes me grimace when I watch him...But if you wanted authenticity you got it [on Wednesday] night. And, really, you got it in an unsurprising way. We know that Obama skews cerebral and that he has never liked debates as a way to engage issues. He has said that many times.”

Will Burns: “The President has always been someone who takes the truth seriously and has a great faith in the American people and their ability to handle big ideas. He doesn’t patronize them. He uses the campaign as an educative process. He wants to win but also wants to be clear about his ideas.”
This was all a good reminder for me because it gets down to the root of things...this is who President Obama is. To attempt to be any different would mean giving up his authenticity. Pundits and partisans can say "he needs to go for the jugular" all they want. Who knows, occasionally they might even be right about it being a better strategy. But we're dealing with a human being here - and one who knows himself pretty well. I suspect he also knows that trying to be something he's not creates an even bigger problem.

There are times when I write about this kind of thing that it can sound like a strategy President Obama has crafted rather than him just being who he is. That's why this is a good reminder for me as well. But in the end, most successful people figure out how to use their individual personality styles to their greatest benefit. In other words, they find a way to use what they have. So in that way, seeing it as a strategy that has been developed to maximize his style is a more complete way of understanding President Obama.


  1. I so seems after 8 years, people should have a strong idea of PBO is. His "performance" in the debate did not surprise me because it is his authentic self. There are still people running around thinking he should be some kind of Shaft caricature - Shaft plays well but in real life, not so much. PBO has nothing to apologize for or justify certainly not to blood thirty media willing to do just about anything to make themselves the news.

    1. You're right... The President has to be who he is -- that's his strength. But to pretend that his debate performance wasn't subpar is just that... pretending. Who knows why he was off his game? Maybe he had a great game plan that he didn't execute well... or maybe Romney's incessant lying threw him... or maybe he was as tired as he looks from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders took its toll... or maybe he just had a brain freeze. After all, he's human. But seeing him not doing well in key moments was so atypical, it was jolting. The silver lining is that it was a wakeup call for his supporters to not be complacent and keep working. The President makes course corrections as well as anyone I've ever seen and I fully expect him to find his sweet spot somewhere between going for the jugular and being listless in the next debate.

  2. Wish I'd seen this before. I was a college debater and have been a trial lawyer for around 27 years. One of the people interviewed refers to the need for bloodlust in a debater, the desire to demolish the opponent's arguments and defeat him. It's well-put. President Obama might be a highly competitive pickup basketball player, but there is nothing in his history demonstrating the same kind of competitiveness as a debater. Like any athlete a debater must have an overwhelming desire to win and views an opponent's arguments as volleys to be returned with aggression until ultimately defeated. This is not and never has been President Obama.