Durante meses, a reeleição de Barack Obama parecia um dado adquirido. Até que, no primeiro debate com Mitt Romney, a 3 de Outubro de 2012, o presidente dos Estados Unidos mostrou uma faceta que poucos lhe conheciam. Distante, desligado, impaciente e com pouco respeito pelo adversário. Resultado: o candidato republicano subiu nas sondagens, aproximou-se e deixou a equipa de Barack Obama em pânico. Recompor o presidente e convencê-lo a afastar-se do abismo foi uma tarefa difícil, descrita no livro Double Down: Game Change 2012, de Mark Halperin e John Heilemann, cujo excerto foi publicado pela revista New York.
“The debate was only a few minutes old, and Barack Obama was already tanking. His opponent on this warm autumn night, a Massachusetts patrician with an impressive résumé, a chiseled jaw, and a staunch helmet of burnished hair, was an inferior political specimen by any conceivable measure. But with surprising fluency, verve, and even humor, Obama’s rival was putting points on the board. The president was not. Passive and passionless, he seemed barely present.
It was Sunday, October 14, 2012, and Obama was bunkered two levels below the lobby of the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. In a blue blazer, khaki pants, and an open-necked shirt, he was squaring off in a mock debate against Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who was standing in for the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The two men were in Williamsburg, along with the president’s team, to prepare Obama for his second televised confrontation with Romney, 48 hours away, at Hofstra University in New York. It was an event to which few had given much thought. Until the debacle in Denver, that is.
The debate in the Mile High City eleven days earlier had jolted a race that for many months had been hard fought but remarkably stable. From the moment in May that Romney emerged victorious from the most volatile and unpredictable Republican-nomination contest in many moons, Obama had held a narrow yet consistent lead. But after Romney mauled the president in Denver, the wind and weather of the campaign shifted in something like a heartbeat. The challenger was surging. The polls were tightening. Republicans were pulsating with renewed hope. Democrats were rending their garments and collapsing on their fainting couches.
Obama was nowhere in the vicinity of panic. “You ever known me to lose two in a row?” he said to friends to calm their nerves.
The president’s advisers were barely more rattled. Yes, Denver had been atrocious. Yes, it had been unnerving. But Obama was still ahead of Romney, the sky hadn’t fallen, and they would fix what went wrong in time for the town-hall debate at Hofstra. Their message to the nervous Nellies in their party was: Keep calm and carry on.
Williamsburg was where the repair job was supposed to take place. The Obamans had arrived at the resort, ready to work, on Saturday the 13th. The first day had gone well. The president seemed to be finding his form. He and Kerry had been doing mock debates since August, and the session on Saturday night was Obama’s best yet. Everyone exhaled.
But now, in Sunday night’s run-through, the president seemed to be relapsing: The disengaged and pedantic Obama of Denver was back. In the staff room, his two closest advisers, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, watched on video monitors with a mounting sense of unease—when, all of a sudden, a practice round that had started out looking merely desultory turned into the Mock From Hell.
The moment it happened could be pinpointed with precision: at the 39:35 mark on the clock. A question about home foreclosures had been put to potus; under the rules, he had two minutes to respond. Before the mock, Kerry had been instructed by one of the debate coaches to interrupt Obama at some juncture to see how he reacted. Striding across the bright-red carpet of the set that the president’s team had constructed as a precise replica of the Hofstra town-hall stage, Kerry invaded the president’s space and barged in during Obama’s answer.
The president’s eyes flashed with annoyance.
“Don’t interrupt me,” he snapped.
When Kerry persisted, Obama shot a death stare at the moderator—his adviser Anita Dunn, standing in for CNN’s Candy Crowley—and pleaded for an intercession.
The president’s coaches had long worried about the appearance of Nasty Obama on the debate stage: the variant who infamously, imperiously dismissed his main Democratic rival in 2008 with the withering phrase “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” His advisers saw glimpses of that side of him in their preparations for the first showdown—a manifestation of a personal antipathy for Romney that had grown visceral and intense. Now they were seeing it again, and worse. The admixture of Nasty Obama and Denver Obama was not a pretty picture.
Challenged by Kerry with multipronged attacks, the president rebutted them point by point, exhaustively and exhaustingly. Instead of driving a sharp message, he was explanatory and meandering. Instead of casting an eye to the future, he litigated the past. Instead of warmly establishing connections with the town-hall questioners, he pontificated airily, as if he were conducting a particularly tedious press conference. While Kerry was answering a query about immigration, Obama retaliated for the earlier interruption by abruptly cutting him off.
In the staff room, Axelrod and Plouffe were aghast. Sitting with them, Obama’s lead pollster, Joel Benenson, muttered, “This is unbelievable.”
Watching from the set, the renowned Democratic style coach Michael Sheehan scribbled furiously on a legal pad, each notation more alarmed than the last. Reflecting on Obama’s interplay with the questioners, Sheehan summed up his demeanor with a single word: “Creepy.”
After 90 excruciating minutes, the Mock From Hell was over. As Obama made his way to the door, he was intercepted by Axelrod, Plouffe, Benenson, and the lead debate coach, Ron Klain. Little was said. Little needed to be said. The ashen looks on the faces of the president’s men told the tale.
Obama left the building and returned to his sprawling quarters on the banks of the James River with his best friend from Chicago, Marty Nesbitt, to watch football and play cards. His advisers retreated to the president’s debate-prep holding room to have a collective coronary.
That the presidential debates were proving problematic for Obama came as no real surprise to the members of his team. Many of them—Axelrod, the mustachioed message maven and guardian of the Obama brand; Plouffe, the spindly senior White House adviser and enforcer of strategic rigor; Dunn, the media-savvy mother superior and former White House communications director; Benenson, the bearded and noodgy former Mario Cuomo hand; Jon Favreau, the dashing young speechwriter—had been with Obama from the start of his meteoric ascent. They knew that he detested televised debates. That he disdained political theater in every guise. That, on some level, he distrusted political performance itself, with its attendant emotional manipulations.
The paradox, of course, was that Obama had risen to prominence and power to a large extent on the basis of his preternatural performance skills—and his ability to summon them whenever the game was on the line. In late 2007, when he was trailing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic-nomination fight by 30 points. In the fall of 2008, when the global financial crisis hit during the crucial last weeks of the general election. In early 2010, when his signature health-care-reform proposal seemed destined for defeat. In every instance, under ungodly pressure, Obama had pulled up, set his feet, and drained a three-pointer at the buzzer.
The faith of the president’s people that he would do the same at Hofstra was what sustained them in the wake of Denver. For a year, the Obamans had fretted over everything under the sun: gas prices, unemployment, the European financial crisis, Iran, the Koch brothers, the lack of enthusiasm from the Democratic base, Hispanic turnout in the Orlando metroplex. The one thing they had never worried about was Barack Obama.
But given the spectacle they had just witnessed at Kingsmill, the Obamans were more than worried. After spending ten days pooh-poohing the widespread hysteria in their party about Denver, Obama’s debate team was now the most wigged-out collection of Democrats in the country, huddling in a hotel cubby that had become their secret panic room. Three hours had passed since the mock ended; it was almost 2 a.m. Obama’s team was still clustered in the work space, reading transcripts and waxing apocalyptic.
“Guys, what are we going to do?” Plouffe asked quietly, over and over. “That was a disaster.”
Among the Obamans, there was nobody more unflappable than Plouffe—and nobody less shaken by Denver. But while Plouffe believed the public would brush off a single bad debate showing, he was equally convinced that two in a row would not be so readily ignored. If Obama turned in a performance at Hofstra like the one they had seen that night, the consequences could be dire.
“If we don’t fix this,” Plouffe said emphatically, “we could lose the whole fucking election.”