In July 2011 Hoy’s then-Nation and World Editor Victor Perez, photo intern Alejandro Benito and I traveled to tiny Peosta, Iowa.
Our charge was twofold.
The first part was to cover President Obama’s visit to the area as part of his three-day “listening tour” throughout the Midwest.
The second was to look for and get a sense of Latino communities in the area.
The 2010 decennial census had been released and had shown high levels of growth throughout the country in communities large and small in the number and percentage of Latinos.
Our editor Fernando Diaz gave us the charge to heed and learn from the style of legendary “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Amply fired up, we went on our way.
The Obama we encountered seemed a bit listless and humbled by having been shellacked in the November 2010 elections. He appeared to be struggling both to recapture the energy and vision of being a transformational figure as the leader of a grassroots movement to bring enduring change to the country. Instead, speaking at a community college, he decried the obstructionist actions of the Republican-headed Congress.
The job, it appeared, had taken a toll on him.
The memory of that trip came to mind during the first presidential debate held Wednesday night in Denver.
Obama is widely seen to have been handily defeated in the encounter by his Republican opponent Mitt Romney.
Romney’s answers were crisper, his attacks forceful and, strangely, often unanswered.
Beyond that, he seemed relaxed, engaged and like someone who genuinely wanted the job.
Obama was a complete contrast.
As some have written, he looked like he needed a cup of coffee.
His answers ranged from campaign boilerplate to in the weeds explications of policy to, at times, uncharacteristically incoherent.
On the affective level, he looked disengaged, even irritated at moments. A number of people have made the comparison between his actions and Al Gore’s behavior during the “smirk and sigh” debate with George W. Bush that some say played a significant role in his ultimate defeat.
Obama brought his wife Michelle, but not his two daughters, and left almost immediately after the event ended.
In this regard, he reminded me of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who departed from the stage right after his third debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush that included the infamous “Kitty Dukakis” question posed by Bernard Shaw.
Both men transmitted the message that they did not really want to be there, and, by extension, that they did not truly want the job.
Whatever one says about Romney, there can be no doubt that he wants with every fiber of his being to be elected President.
Here are some other reflections from the first debate:
Romney seized the opportunity presented to him.
After a number of weeks of being on the defensive from his “47 percent” comments and tax release debacle, Romney holed up for days preparing himself to take full advantage of the chance to present himself to the American people as a viable alternative to Obama. He did that throughout the 90 minutes.
First debates don’t always predict winners.
The list of presidential challengers or aspirants who have had strong first debates and gone on to lose the general election is not a short one. Walter Mondale in 1984. Dukakis in 1988. John Kerry in 2004. Others have rebounded from a weak performance and still won in November.
The shift in Obama’s strategy from 2008 and Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism
In Learned Optimism, positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman details a fascinating study he did of rhetoric in political contests. He found that he could, with a very high percentage of accuracy, predict the outcome of elections based not on how negative candidates were toward their opponent, but how positive, upbeat and optimistic their comments and rhetoric were.
In short, the more optimistic, the better the chance of winning.
Obama’s 2008 campaign is a case in point.
It was filled with lofty visions of hope and change, of pointing toward a better future for our country and our world.
Millions of people responded to that promise of “Change You Can Believe In.”
Four years later, a central plank of Obama’s strategy seems to be based on tearing down Romney by portraying him as a heartless, plutocratic and even soulless corporate man. While this has had some effect, it is not a recipe for inspiration. It also appeared on Wednesday to have impacted his ability to articulate some broader policy vision for the country in a potential second term as a way to move America toward a better future.
In his convention speech and at the end of the debate, he also has seemed drained while talking openly about the challenges of the job and the mistakes he has made in them.
This by itself need not be a problem for him if they are encased in a determination to persist and advance despite the obstacles, but become more so when they appear to be based in a more permanently pessimistic assessment of himself and the nation’s future direction.
Obama’s change from “We” to “I”
Obama has also understandably touted his accomplishments as president.
This is important to do as they form the basis for the argument that he deserves a second term.
At the same time, by doing so, he has changed the focus of his campaign from being the leader of a broad based movement to a referendum on his performance.
This may reflect the reality of the voters’ decision, and Albie Sachs offered a different thought at a conference at Yale University in 1997. At that gathering he said that President Nelson Mandela was the perfect expression of the will of the people, that he understood and never lost touch with that visceral understanding.
Obama’s rhetoric and actions have displayed much less of that connection. He continues down that path at his peril.
The costs of embracing Clintonism and that era
At the Democratic National Convention and in Wednesday’s debate, Obama has hearkened back to the 90s, when Bill Clinton was president and the economy was roaring.
There are several challenges with that approach.
Like Obama, Clinton was a mid-40s, Ivy League-educated lawyer from humble beginnings who married a similarly educated wife, did not serve in the military, and campaigned on bringing meaningful change to the country.
Clinton not only went back on many of his larger promises, two critical features of his presidency were economic growth and his triangulation to the center against the Republican-dominated Congress.
This led to successful politics-he was reelected comfortably in 1996 against Bob Dole-and a remaking of the Democratic Party. But it also meant that his heirs had less of an ideological basis on which to draw.
By embracing the Clinton era, Obama not only shines a negative contrast of the economy’s comparatively sputtering growth, he retreats from the broader vision he espoused and to which so many people responded when he was a candidate.
Specifically, his almost exclusive focus on middle-class families, who do comprise a significant chunk of undecided voters, meant that he yet again said nothing about poverty and poor people.
Some of them vote, too.
Beyond the political calculus, the move cedes the higher ground on which Obama said he wanted to tread.
Social media’s impact at the moment and afterward
One only has to look at the myriad of Big Bird images and new Twitter accounts that surfaced during the debate to see yet again the enormous impact social media has on our world.
This has been repeatedly commented on, as has the role many fact checking sites play in shrinking the amount of time candidates’ claims go unscrutinized.
But a less considered aspect is social media’s impact on reducing the time frame and length of our perspective.
Think back a little more than a year, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the Republican contest and sparked a flurry of speculation that the race was over.
Think back just a week when people were doing the same after the videos of Romney’s 47 percent comment.
Now a groundswell is building that Obama blew the election on Wednesday night.
From my perspective, there is a meaningful connection between the deluge of instant information and analysis and the decrease in historic perspective.
This is not to say which candidate will win, but rather to guard against, to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of either candidate’s death because they could be greatly exaggerated.
Anxiety can lead to urgency
Perhaps an unintentionally positive result from the debate debacle for Obama and his supporters is that he and they will emerge from the complacent, running out the clock approach to a more vigorous engagement with the race, his opponent and the issues the country confront.
In order to do so, he’ll need to display more energy than he did in Iowa in July 2011 and than he did on stage in Denver Wednesday night.
Almost exactly a month remains in the contest.
We will continue to watch with interest.