Why Obama lost the debate

This is a lightly edited version of my radio commentary from today’s show.

First, I should say that while I am not a Democrat, and never had much hope invested in 2008’s candidate of hope, I do think we’d be marginally better off if Obama won. One reason we’d be better off is that when a Democrat is in power, it’s easier to see that the problems with our politics—the dominance of money and state violence—are systemic issues, and not a matter of individuals or parties. That’s not to say there are no differences between the two major parties. The Republicans are a gang of terrifying reactionaries, which flatters the gaggle of wobbly centrists that make up the other party. But the Dems have some serious foundational problems that help explain what is almost universally regarded as Obama’s dismal performance in the first debate.

First, Obama’s personality. In an earlier life, I spent a lot of time studying the psychoanalytic literature on narcissism. It was all part of a study of canonical American poetry, where I thought that the imperial grandiosity of the American imaginary could be illuminated by examining its underlying narcissism. But all that is by way of saying I’m not using this term recklessly. I think there’s a lot of the narcissist about Obama. There’s something chilly and empty about him. Unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn’t revel in human company. It makes him uncomfortable. He wants the rich and powerful to love him, but doesn’t care about the masses (unless they’re a remote but adoring crowd). Many people seem to bore him. It shows.

And the charms of the narcissist wear badly over time. All the marvelous things his fans projected on him in 2008 have faded. He’s no longer the man of their fantasies. And that shows too.

Which is not unrelated to a more political problem. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who famously said that he welcomed the hatred of the rich, Obama wants to flatter them. He made the mistake of calling them “fatcats” once, so his former fans on Wall Street turned on him. That has something to do with why he didn’t mention the 47% thing, or tar Romney as the candidate of the 0.1%. That would be divisive and offend the people whose admiration he craves. FDR came out of the aristocracy, and had the confidence to step on the fancy toes of the rich now and then. Obama came out of nowhere, was groomed for success by elite institutions throughout his impressive rise, and no doubt wants some of those nice shoes for himself.

More broadly, the political problem of the Democrats is that they’re a party of capital that has to pretend for electoral reasons sometimes that it’s not. All the complaints that liberals have about them—their weakness, tendency to compromise, the constantly lamented lack of a spine—emerge from this central contradiction. The Republicans have a coherent philosophy and use it to fire up a rabid base. The Dems are afraid of their base because it might cause them trouble with their funders.

What do liberals stand for these days? Damned if I know. It’s not a philosophy you can express in aphorisms. (Yeah, politics are complex, and slogans are simple, but if you’ve got a passionately held set of beliefs you can manage that contradiction.) Too many qualifications and contradictions. They can’t just say less war and more equality, because they like some wars and want to bore you with just war theory to explain the morality of drone attacks, and worry about optimal tax rates and incentives. Join an empty philosophy to an empty personality and you get a very flat and meandering performance in debate.

Romney believes in money. Obama believes in nothing.

Most liberals want to write off Obama’s bad performance as a bad night. It’s not just that. It’s a structural problem.

41 Comments on “Why Obama lost the debate

  1. Hi Doug, I tend to agree with much of what you say, and for years have listened to your wisdom, thanks for that. On this particular post I don’t see it though. Yes, it was a poor Obama performance, yet the striking part to me was how good Romney was at manipulation and feigned confidence and how often Obama seemed to capitulate at the acting. ie Romney literally smiled or smirked the whole time I was watching the debate, ..and had to turn it off more than once due to feeling sickened watching this.. yet later, looked up “non-stop smirk and smile theory on google, only to find it listed in a communications theory book as a sure way to manipulating people in a sense of being definitively seen as a commanding personality. I think Romney used that and his feigned confidence, and also not making any horrific gaffs which is what led to his looking strong, and Obama looking haggard, annoyed, not wanting to be there often and “professorial” (what a tragedy the last part is huh?) :) .. Maybe Jon Stewart should be the next advisor for the his debates, as the content seems to be only a minor backdrop to the performance and acting work involved! dv

  2. As you know, Doug, it’s a shocking lie to say that “just war theory … explain[s] the morality of drone attacks.” The Obama people did indeed want ot suggest that, in the infamous May 29 NYT piece, but they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

  3. I think Obama has politics but he fears being true to them because he knows they fall outside the bounds of acceptable views. The Obama Paradox is that a genuine liberal could do in response, for example, the economic situation than he can because he fears being tagged a socialist. Hence even Romney appeared to the left of Obama on too big to fail banks last night.

  4. Pingback: The Trouble with Obama is America « The Paltry Sapien

  5. LOL. You claim people don’t like Obama and Liberals because they don’t know what they stand for? BS! People know full well. More gov, more taxes, anti-business, anti-Israel, apologizing for America.

  6. Steve: you seem to be under the faulty assumption that the deeply conservative Obama is some sort of “closet liberal”. There is no evidence in his fairly deep voting and “action” record to back that up. If anything, he got shell-shocked trying to find things he could disagree with Romney on without upsetting his handlers. I mean – look what happened when he made an innocuous remark about the very bankers he rescued a few years ago.

  7. Steve, he gets tagged a socialist by drawing breath.

    He’s a man of color, and he’s the president, ergo, his enemies had inevitably tarred him with every feather of white resentment they could conjure (socialist, foreigner, Muslim, etc., etc.) before he even came out of the gate. He might as well have nationalized every major industry in the country, and instituted WWII-era tax rates, and what else could they have called him? He’s always understood this logic, just as his “handlers” have always understood it. Ergo, there was never anything to “fear.”

    Regardless of what his administration has managed to do, or not do, not one ounce of it has been constrained by any anticipation of right-wing messaging. Romney “appeared to the left of Obama” because this president is a neoliberal, through and through.

  8. Both candidates showed me, last night, that they are morally bankrupt. They didn’t even discuss the most pressing issue of the day which is what’s happening to the planet. Correction; what humans are doing to the biosphere. They postured and put forth feel good phrases and pointed at problems but neither of them named the two biggest problems the US faces, democrats and republicans. Not only have they not earned my vote they have made it clear that it is time to get rid of both parties and to do something completely different, which is why I am voting Green in November.

  9. The Republicans may have a rabid and easily fired up base but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll vote for Romney. The Republicans have done as good a job at alienating much of their base as the Democrats have. Romney is not the Christian culture warrior the base wants. He’s not even Paul Ryan, the free market radical. He’s the Republican flavored neoliberal just as Obama is the Democratic flavor. The truth is that both the Democratic and Republican parties are scared of their base.

  10. After watching him putz around, I’ve never understood why Obama is even seeking a second term. As a “serving” president he’s shown zero interest in doing much of anything, in pursuing any particular direction. He reacts — and badly at that. As an ex-president he’ll have the speaking fees and the book deals and the board memberships on tap. What more could a resume’-polishing self-dealer want?

  11. Sheila Allen Avelin says… Um. This guy may have read a lot of poetry but he is not actually clear on the clinical profile of a narcissist. Obama’s an introvert, yes, that’s obvious. A narcissist–not as clear. All politicians have some narcissism to them, as do all memoir-writers, but the core of what makes someone a narcissist is an inability to feel empathy or love; they have a fragile-to-non-existent sense of self that depends on the constant admiration of others to reflect them back to themselves (= “narcissistic supply”). I don’t see that in Obama, whereas Clinton-style charm *is* typical of narcissists, who need to always be drawing people in to soothe their egos.

  12. I had a “Nixon Moment” while doing the dishes and listening to the debate. On radio, Obama came across like Nixon “sane and sober” while Romney came over as manic and all over the palce. Must be that Mass. water. To quote JFK, “Good chowwwder!” Looking foward to watching Joe B. get really stupid with Ryan. Bring out your dead!

  13. More broadly, the political problem of the Democrats is that they’re a party of capital that has to pretend for electoral reasons sometimes that it’s not.

    Pretty much spot on, and it’s too bad people don’t hear this enough.

  14. he doesn’t WANT a second term, just doesn’t know how to say “no” to the machine

  15. ‘serious foundational problems’ hardly describes the death and destruction rained on the families of people around the world, or torture, or killing habeus corpus, or extending the wage and debt slavery project to new heights, that defines the D party.

  16. “More broadly, the political problem of the Democrats is that they’re a party of capital that has to pretend for electoral reasons sometimes that it’s not.”

    I disagree. The reason the Democrat party is schizo is because it is made up of so many diverse groups, each with their own agenda. The Republican party by contrast has a fairly uniform, Anglo-Christian demographic rallying behind a few basic social issues: Guns God and Gays… And a visceral fear of big government.

    Also, you have Clinton and Obama perfectly backwards. Clinton is is the textbook NPD; the temper, the philandering, the schmoozing, and most telling, the righteous indignation whenever he gets called out.

    And yet you think Obama is narcissistic because he’s a private person who keeps his distance? Who in their right mind would not be burned-out be meeting people non-stop for four years??

    To the contrary, the persone who thrives off of public adoration (i.e. Clinton) is the one you need to watch. It’s obvious that Obama could just as easily leave public life and enjoy being with his family.

    This is precisely why Clinton resents Obama so much and has made his bizarre little comments behind Obama’s back in the past: He resents Obama’s self-assurance and normal-ness.

  17. “Romney believes in money. Obama believes in nothing.”
    Obama obviously believes in winning elections – for himself at least. And that requires money. So Obama believes in money, too, he just can’t say it out loud like the Republicans can. Obama may be a sociopath more than a narcissist. But whatever his personality… his policies suck. I heard that after the debate he told Axelrod he wasn’t supposed to be a “fact-checker.” So he was basically mute I suppose hoping the media would do his job of making the case against Romney because he couldn’t be bothered.

  18. Let me explain what the Liberals stand for, even if they don’t realize that. But, first, I will remind what Slavoj Ziziek once said: “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” The Left strongly believe that someday capitalism will evolve into something more progressive. That’s the reasoning and hope behind the aggrieved Zizek’s words. However, the reality is that capitalism has the seeds to turn into, more probably, something very ugly. It once tried in the 1930s and may repeat the attempt once again however in an historically unrecognizable disguise. The tragedy is that very few will be in a position to notice a slow drift towards a new dystopian future. Unlike the Left, which is very marginalized and will remain so, the Liberals, however week. disorganized and inconsistent, is the only and last watchdog barking the society will pay any attention to. The Liberals have an historical role to play in preempting this eventuality, though maybe unsuccessfully but that is another story.

  19. “Unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn’t revel in human company. It makes him uncomfortable.”

    I think you mistake introversion for narcissism.

    “That has something to do with why he didn’t mention the 47% thing, ”

    I figured that Romney probably has a well prepared response to this, so Obama mentioning this might give Mittens an opportunity to set things “right” in front of that massive public audience. Not mentioning it would allow the current perception of the remark to continue unadulterated. So, probably best not to mention it, in the view of Team Obama,

    I’m with Dave here. I do appreciate your wisdom and your radio shows have had a huge effect on my thinking. However, with all due respect, I feel that there is a bit of psychological reaching in this last article.

  20. thank you
    i am not politican but i am intristing about the politice because from tham is depented my life and children life’s ..so for me doesn;t metter who is last name to winn D OR R ..imprtante is the politice they use to be better for the people does’nt have power ..i saw the debate ( atrue i did not wait something)new ,,;;this happening last night in bedate (for me was not bedate )because in debate we dont’ leave 2 min to give answere this is (diagonismo) who give answere …2 politican PRESIDENT and CANDIDAT FOR PRESIDENT doesn’t need to give examination ..they have to show the people what is the program who have to follow for next 4 years..For me personaly no one winn ..IF some one ask me who have to be president ? i give this answere we have to leave the Obama finish the job he start 4 years ..TO be fair GWBUSH 2008 leave the USA in very bad condination THIS KNOW EVERYONE ..maybe OBAMA did not do (arketa) ..but i know is not eazy there NOW …people american have to choice who is better for tham ..FOR some reason the politice in world is very confusion and truble too SOME who (i don;t know) wanted to keep the world in tenssion economic and politice ,we have war in middle east .we have problem in EU we have problem expansion moneytar .expansion territorial..all this for me say something (maybe )
    we are in begining war.? why situation in SYRIA is the same 1 /1/2 year ?why Turkey want to play one decisament role for Syria?(i know is bord) but NOT just this EH…why the economic crisis (if is this true) in EU doesnt have resolution?

    why all the money ..is somewere ?and now wanted
    Gold.silver platium .to put somewere too ..
    because the oil is saperate betw big intreses …
    my logic say some who ( 1-10-20-30) people rich with powere make the politice in earth ..
    enjoy this comment because i say what i think
    sometime i am bored with all this ..sometime i enjoy my freetime (because i have eoungh)..

  21. Reblogged this on Once Upon A TPM and commented:
    reblogging to Onceuponaparadigm so my friends can read it too. And spot on I might add.

  22. Pingback: Once Upon a Paradigm

  23. The problem isn’t as much Barack Obama’s supposed “narcissism”, Doug, as it is the structual political dynamics of the US political system essentially favors conservatives and Big Capital, which forces national Democrats to the “campaign Left yet govern Right” schzophrenia.

    More than likely, Obama just had a bad night and was caught off guard by Romney’s overaggression and attempt to repaint himself as a “Massachusetts Moderate” after pandering so much to the Tea Party Right during the campaign. He probably won’t make that mistake in the future.

    What fascinates me is how the debacle in Denver has brought back all the Hillary Clinton fangirls and fanbois who want to use the debate to refight the 2008 Democratic primary and say that Hillary would have been the better candidate right now. Yeah, right….Hillary probably wouldn’t have even beaten McCain, but for sure she would NOT have been anywhere near as “progressive” as some PUMA’s and radfems have suggested.

    The real problem is not with Barack Obama or even with the Democrats. It’s with the overall SYSTEM that created him…and Mitt Romney.

  24. Hi Doug,

    I like your remark about the Democrats and their base. I would extend it somewhat to say that the Democrats hate and fear their base in general because, if ever aroused, it might be hard to contain. The Republicans, on the other hand, have contempt for their base and are certain that they can turn it on and off like a faucet, which is accurate, since the Tea Party is mostly old people with bellies (albeit bellies full of hate). Hence the explanation for the Republican mobilization and Democrat apathy in Florida around the election-stealing of 2000. There is hardly a thought more loathsome to Democrats than that of 1,000,000 Black people in the streets demanding democracy.

    David McDonald

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  26. Pingback: A Fantasy Election, an Imaginary Man « pundit from another planet

  27. Obviously, anyone allowed anywhere near the presidency would be a dutiful and consistent servant of Capital, so I don’t think ideology can be adduced to explain a poor performance in a debate. That there are some contradictions between what Mr. O says and what he does — or just other things that he says — simply shows that he’s a politician. No, I think he’s a careful wonk, bad at thinking on his feet. The whole debate form, between maximal sociopaths such as presidential candidates, is utterly vacuous anyway, and I am surprised so many otherwise intelligent people pay so much attention to it.

  28. Obama and Willard believe in wage-labour for the majority and the continuation of capitalist system for the benefit of the ruling class. Democrats have come up with Social Security, the Civil Rights Act and the Food Stamp program amongst other political moves which move surplus value and civil liberties produced by the workers into the daily lives of the workers themselves. The Republicans would never have done those things. To be sure, democrats support left-wing reformist measures and pro-capitalists a la FDR and Obama hope that these measures will mollify the working class, help them to adjust to their lives as wage-slaves for their job creating employers.

    The problem is systemic, the System, the wage system to be specific. Neither the right nor the left dare speak its name.

  29. Henwood makes personality out to be an issue, which it isn’t. Obama may have learned not to get too close to people for genuine reasons of emotional health.

    Also, one is far more likely to be seduced by a narcissist and find his basic blurb believable than by one who isn’t. Narcissism isn’t identified as “something cold” or something we dislike. We love it, because it tastes like undiluted sugar.

  30. Regarding the narcissism – I recognized this of Obama in early 2007. Here’s a letter I wrote to Sam Smith at Progressive Review in February 2008:
    (though to my discredit, I didn’t fully see through Edwards). Pretty much no-one listened when I spoke of Obama’s narcissism.
    And yes, the charms of narcissism do wear badly over time. Along those lines – this profile of Obama’s early political career is worth a scan:
    Personally – I’d like to vote for Jill Stein, but live in a swing state and would hate to see Romney elected. So if the polls suggest a close race come election day, I might arrange a vote swap

  31. Great piece. I totally agree. Obama resembles people I know that have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

  32. the actual left speaks its name all the time – obama supporters are left-in-name-only

  33. Pingback: Why Obama Lost The Debate | Disinformation

  34. Pingback: Why Obama Lost The Debate | Publication-X

  35. Pingback: Is Obama a Narcissist? « Clarissa's Blog

  36. Introvert, rather than a narcissist.

    “Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, first popularized the idea that the world was divided into introverts and extroverts in the 1920s. He defined extroverts as people who are energized by interacting with others. Introverts, on the other hand, are drained by conversation and crowds, hence the need for occasional time alone to recharge.”


  37. Since when is Obama a liberal? (I’m a liberal, and I’ve opposed him since he gave that “Left and Right are equally at fault” keynote in 2004.) As for those who call themselves liberals who continue to support Obama they fall into four categories imo: those who won’t go against the wishes of 95% of black voters (included in that are many black voters), those who are deluded, those who are unwilling to admit a mistake, and those who, like Obama, aren’t actually liberal.

    As for being opposed to “war” that’s being neither liberal or left but pacifist-and I freely admit I’m not a pacifist. Nevertheless, I can manage to distignuish between military actions that are justifiable (our actions in Yugoslavia in the 90s, our initial actions in Afghanistan in 2001) and those that are not (pretty much everything since then). As for those who ARE pacifist, I can only point out that it is arguable as many people died as a result of our not acting in Rwanda or Darfur, or earlier in Yugoslavia, as our acting when we shouldn’t have. Abstract principles and concrete realities are often an unhappy mix.


  38. Maybe he’s taking a dive-doesn’t want the job anymore-Clinton’s net worth zoomed to over $100MM in six years after he left-Maybe Barry just wants to cash in his markers

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