The President’s “Intervention” Before the Second 2012 Debate

December 4th, 2013

I have really enjoyed reading Double Down: Game Change 2012. The amount of access the authors had to the key decision-makers is remarkable. I really felt like I was on the campaign trail, through every twist and turn. This is the narrative I aspired to in writing Unprecedented (and in its sequel, Unraveled).

Perhaps the most touching moment came on the eve of the second debate. Recall that President Obama bombed the first one in Denver. He was not improving in debate prep, and was coming up flat. His closest aids held what could only be dubbed an “intervention,” to talk some sense into him.

They needed to figure out what had gone haywire from the inside out. They needed, as someone in the staff room put it, to stage an “intervention.”

The President’s remarks were candid, honest, and revealing. I have no idea how the authors obtained a verbatim transcript of the talk. Maybe it was recorded. Maybe it was staged. Who knows? But, I’ll assume this is actually what happened.

Read it for what it’s worth.

“Guys, I’m struggling,” he said somberly. “Last night wasn’t good, and I know that. Here’s why I think I’m having trouble. I’m having a hard time squaring up what I know I need to do, what you guys are telling me I need to do, with where my mind takes me, which is: I’m a lawyer, and I want to argue things out. I want to peel back layers.”

The ensuing presidential soliloquy went on for ten minutes— an eternity in Obama time. His tone was even and unemotional, but searching, introspective, diagnostic, vulnerable. Psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually, he was placing his cards face up on the table.

“When I get a question,” he said, “I go right to the logical.” You ask me a question about health care. There’s a problem and there’s a response. Here’s what my opponent might say about it, so I’m going to counteract that. Okay, we’re gonna talk about immigration. Here’s what I’d like to say— but I can’t say that. Think about what that means. I know what I want to say, I know where my mind takes me, but I have to tell myself, No, no, don’t do that— do this other thing. It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed.

Throughout the campaign, Obama had been criticized for the thin gruel of his second-term agenda. Now he acknowledged that it bothered him, too, and posed a challenge for the debates.

You keep telling me I can’t spend too much time defending my record, and that I should talk about my plans, he said. But my plans aren’t anything like the plans I ran on in 2008. I had a universal health care plan then. Now I’ve got  .  .  . what? A manufacturing plan? What am I gonna do on education? What am I gonna do on energy? There’s not much there.

“I can’t tell you that, Okay, I woke up today, I knew I needed to do better, and I’ll do better,” Obama said. “I am wired in a different way than this event requires.”

Obama paused. “I just don’t know if I can do this,” he said.

Simply stunning.

Also, I should note that Obama mentioned that he ran on a universal health care plan in 2008. That is *not* what the Affordable Care Act implemented.