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.
Excerpted from Double Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, to be published on November 5, 2013, by the Penguin Press.