President Barack Obama likes to be alone.
When he speaks at rallies, he doesn’t want the stage cluttered with other officeholders. When he rides in his limo, he isn’t prone to give local pols a lift. He wants to feel that he doesn’t owe his ascension to anyone else — not a rich daddy, not a spouse or father who was president, not even those who helped at pivotal moments. He believes he could do any job in his White House or campaign, from speechwriter to policy director, better than those holding the jobs.
So Obama knows that he alone is responsible for his unfathomable retreat into his own head while nearly 70 million people watched. He hadn’t been nailing it in debate prep either, taking a break to visit the Hoover Dam and worried aides knew his head wasn’t in it. When the president realized what a dud he was, he apologized to flummoxed and irritated advisers.
Once during the 2008 campaign, reading about all the cataclysms jolting the economy and the world, Obama joked to an adviser: “Maybe I should throw the game.” This time, he actually threw the game. And shaved points right off his poll ratings. The president is good at analyzing the psychology of other world leaders, and he wrote an acclaimed memoir about his long, lonely odyssey of self-discovery. But he doesn’t always do a good job at analyzing his own psychology to avoid self-destructive patterns.
David Maraniss, who wrote biographies of Bill Clinton and Obama, said that both men had recurring themes. Clinton would plant “the seeds of his own undoing” and then “find a way to recover.” Obama’s personality, Maraniss said, was shaped by his desire to avoid traps created by his unusual family and geographical backgrounds, and the trap of race in America.
“It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard, looking for where he might get checkmated,” Maraniss wrote in the book, Barack Obama: The Story, adding that it also made Obama seek to transcend confrontation.
While Mitt Romney did a great job of conjuring a less off-putting and hard-right Romney, Obama walked into a trap of his own devising.
It was a perfect psychological storm for the president. He performs better when his back is against the wall; he has some subconscious need to put himself in challenging positions. That makes it hard for him to surf success and intensity; he just suddenly runs out of gas and stops fighting, leaving revved up supporters confused and deflated.
“That’s just his rhythm,” said one adviser.
Because Obama doesn’t relish confrontation, he often fails to pin his opponents on the mat the first time he gets the chance; instead, perversely, he pulls back and allows foes to gain oxygen. It happened with Hillary in New Hampshire and Texas and with Republicans in the health care and debt-ceiling debates. Just as Obama let the tea party inflate in the summer of 2009, spreading a phony narrative about “death panels,” now he has let Romney inflate and spread a phony narrative about moderation and tax math.
Even though Obama was urged not to show his pompous side, he arrived at the podium cloaked in layers of disdain: a disdain for debates, which he regards as shams; a venue, as the Carter White House adviser Gerry Rafshoon puts it, where “people prefer a good liar to a bad performer.”