Did I really see that last night? The debate was a bad horror movie for liberals and progressives such as myself, who support Obama. It was Attack of the 50-Foot Etch-a-Sketch, Deluxe Edition vs. “Night of the Living Dead.”
In a strange personality transplant, Obama came across visually and emotionally as the irritated, removed, imperious Chief who did not want to be interrupted, thank you very much, challenged, questioned, or, in this case, noticed, while Romney cut against the grain of his own policies, personal history, and character to seem earnest, passionate and even occasionally wry.
When he wasn’t looking irritated that Romney had shown up for the debate, piercing into the President’s face as my cats do before they move in for the kill, Obama was buried in his books. He stood at the lectern and sought refuge in scribbling notes, seemingly oblivious that he was on a split screen the entire time.
Obama didn’t go so far as to look at his watch, as President Bush famously did in the 1992 debate, but it amounted to the same message. Get me out of here, please.
The content was worse.
If Romney channels Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, as David Brooks sagely noted in a recent column, then Obama channels The Professor.
Eschewing all the bull’s eyes and obvious targets for retort and argument against Romney, he reverted under stress to what I believe is his most intuitive, default character: that of the academic who views the world at an insulated, safe remove.
This is the world from whence I came. Although I don't think academics make for good politicians, as I'll explain, I do like them as a group.
Like professors everywhere, Obama seemed to lack self-awareness of his own importance or presence. Humanities professors—aside from the few who become celebrities—can more or less say anything they want, as unintelligibly, incoherently, complexly, imprecisely, uncrisply, meanderingly, or ambivalently as they choose, because no one really listens, or takes them all that seriously outside of the confines of their world. Once they get tenure, even fewer people in their departments care.
This is why university press books feel like a success if more than, say, 500 volumes are sold. The audience is small, the stakes smaller.
Professors seek insight, refuge, argument and solace in the weeds. Their great role is to view the world at an analytic remove. They are people who would, as did Obama last night, nod in apparent agreement while they were being eviscerated on-stage by an opponent’s arguments against them! What’s up with that?
Academics can mumble their way through answers to cover all the bases, with little fear that anyone will consider their comments of that much consequence.
Lest I sound critical of academicians (hah!), one of their great virtues is that they know where they stand, and they know their place in the world of ideas.
They’re not aspiring to write commercial bestsellers. They’re not giving lectures to be maximally succinct, crisp and “zinger”-like. Their lives are dedicated to “the weeds” that the rest of us would rather not have, or see, or slog through as we garden. And I'm glad that we have them.
Many humanities academics would consider the world of real politick, journalism, and non-academic publishing or media to be somewhat cheapening to their complicated ideas and conceptualizations.
And that incredulity came through last night, too, with Obama.
He seemed almost defeated or hopelessly jaded--or, even bored???--toward the very office that he holds and aspires to keep.
Indeed, one of the most aggravating features of humanities academicians, to me, is that in the post-modern age they tend to view the quality of optimism that is the pulsing lifeblood of mainstream politics or social work to be an example of stupidity. The only intelligent stance is, of course, the ironic, and the wryly skeptical, the belief as novelist Scott Spencer describes of one character, that "the world is filled with vanity, stupidity, and darkness and even those who would want to do good" are lured into destructiveness "by their own incomplete thinking."
Obama offered “HOPE” as his very campaign slogan in 2008, but seemed to slither back into the more ironic, distanced stance in this debate. I almost get the sense that DC has disappointed Obama and left him without the reserves, whatever they may be, to crack the puzzle--even to crack the dishonorable, organized GOP resistance against him.
The bad debate performance exemplifies a frustration with this administration—the extent to which Obama hasn’t embraced politics or done the sleeves-rolled-up, Lyndon Johnsonian political work to effect change.
And unlike true professors, last night Obama paired dithering, academic content of someone with no power with the irritated, imperious mannerism of someone with power.
It was a losing combination.
One more thing. On the list of the low-hanging fruit left hanging we can add that Obama’s commanding lead among women voters went unexploited. There was no reinforcement of this flank, of the women’s issues that have been so galvanizing in this campaign.