I’ve been mulling President Obama’s abysmal debate performance for the last few days, wondering what was really behind it.
Yes, he was rusty and has been isolated in the Oval Office. And certainly, the president was guilty of complacency, unusually high self-regard and, frankly, disdain for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But his performance was such a disaster, down to his body language — his “uhs” and “ahs,” constantly scribbling notes and rarely looking at the camera — that it looked not so much like a defeat as a surrender.
And then it hit me: What if, deep down, the president really doesn’t want this job anymore?
After coasting into the White House on a tide of hope and change, with some of the highest expectations accompanying a modern president, he got a lot of things done in his first two years — the auto bailout, economic stimulus, health care reform and financial reform.
But his very success in getting his agenda through in 2009-2010 opened the door for the Tea Party, which gave him a “shellacking” in the 2010 election, in his own words.
Then followed two years of misery with a Republican House and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate. The only way he could get anything done — extended unemployment benefits and a payroll tax holiday — was to acquiesce to massive spending cuts or an extension of the Bush tax cuts, breaking a key promise and antagonizing his base.
And of course, the battle over the debt limit, which Bob Woodward writes about in excruciating detail in his new book, The Price of Politics, must have been the most draining, dispiriting experience imaginable.
Even if Obama wins the election, he’ll probably face a Republican House and maybe even a narrower Democratic majority in the Senate, if not Republican control there, too. He’ll be fighting the same battle over the debt ceiling and the Bush tax cuts early next year.
He’ll also have to stave off numerous GOP and lobbyists’ efforts to keep his health care reform law from being stricken off the books and Dodd-Frank from being fully implemented.
There’s also the small matter of Iran’s nuclear program.
Big initiatives like cap and trade are off the table. Immigration reform is remote. Is it any surprise that the president’s platform includes small-ball stuff like 100,000 new teachers and initiatives to boost community colleges’ role in job creation?
And is it any wonder conservative columnist Peggy Noonan described President Obama’s convention acceptance speech as “stale and empty.” That was even more true of his performance in the first debate.
His advisers tell us he’ll come out fighting in the next debate. Maybe. But he’ll have to show us not only that he deserves four more years but that he wants them.
Howard R. Gold is a columnist for MarketWatch and editor at large for MoneyShow.com as well as editor of The Independent Agenda political blog at www.independentagenda.com, where you can read more commentary like this. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold.