Saturday, October 13, 2012

David Maraniss: Obama’s debates point to his way with words - The Washington Post:

As Obama attempts to regain his equilibrium in the lead-up to Tuesday’s debate, questions persist among his followers. What was he thinking? Why did angles of attack that seemed so obvious to others elude him that night? Can he figure it out and get his magic back before Election Day?

These questions are odd echoes of the laments about Bill Clinton after his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. With fury, anxiety or depression, Clinton’s believers would ask: What was he thinking? How could he not see the dangers that were so obvious to everyone else? Can he find his way through this?

The parameters of their dilemmas are vastly different, but the answers are similar, centering on a common theme rooted in their histories. With Obama and Clinton both, strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked. The same qualities that carried each man to the White House cannot be separated from traits that can give them varying degrees of trouble.

Clinton was a president with an irrepressible appetite for life who needed to be loved, had an aversion to being alone, was unmatched in his ability to take the temperature of a room, could operate on many levels at once, and had a remarkable capacity to survive. Time and again he planted the seeds of his own destruction and then found ways to recover. The notion that he wasted his potential by making trouble for himself is both true and beside the point. The productive Clinton might not have existed without the profligate one; they were part of the same package.

Obama also comes with competing yet connected impulses. Growing up biracial, with a white mother and grandparents and an absent Kenyan father, during his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia he mastered the challenging task of negotiating his way through different cultures, getting to where he wanted to go while avoiding traps. This made him at once polite and competitive, burning to win yet reluctant to confront. Clinton, by plowing past one obstacle after another, came to think of himself as unsinkable, if not invincible. Obama, weaving around life’s potential barriers smoothly and largely alone, came to regard himself as not only lucky but destined, a sensibility that could lead to overconfidence, if not hubris.

The further contradiction in Obama is that he chose politics as his profession while harboring ambivalence about it. He has played by the conventional rules yet at times betrays a disdain for the game, whether mocking the notion of sound bites or chastising the media for being slaves to a 24-hour news cycle while he thinks in the long term. Clinton could immerse himself in the moment and excel at transactional politics. Obama is more the participant-observer, self-consciously taking note of the surreal aspects of what he is doing. Clinton’s antennae were tuned to his surroundings; Obama’s are tuned to his interior being. Clinton, a brilliantly authentic phony, could assume any role the circumstances required. Obama yearns to play roles he admires. In the first debate, he was the constitutional law professor, listening, giving ground, offering complex caveats, soberly taking notes. None of that helped him.