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.”
Almost from the moment that Obama stepped off the debate stage in Denver, he had been bombarded with advice about how to remedy what had gone wrong. But the truth was that virtually no one on the planet could understand what he was going through or up against.
A rare exception was Bill Clinton. Before Denver, Clinton had watched in wonder as Obama caught break after break. Although the economy wasn’t roaring back, neither the European banking crisis nor the unrest in the Mideast had caused it to nosedive. Meanwhile, Romney’s ineptness staggered Clinton. After the release of the 47 percent video, he remarked to a friend that, while Mitt was a decent man, he was in the wrong line of work. (“He really shouldn’t be speaking to people in public.”) As for Obama, Clinton trotted out for his pals the same line again and again: “He’s luckier than a dog with two dicks.”