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The Intervention

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Obama confers with Ron Klain during debate prep with John Kerry, Henderson, Nevada, October 2, 2012.  

Though the first debate brought the incumbent’s streak of good fortune to a crashing halt, Clinton was insistent that the Obamans not overreact. On the phone to Axelrod, 42 counseled restraint at Hofstra, warning that if 44 was too hot or negative in a town-hall debate, it would backfire. Four days after Denver, at a fund-raiser at the Beverly Hills home of Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, Clinton huddled with Obama and repeated the instructions.

Don’t try to make up the ground you lost, the Big Dog said. Just be yourself.

Obama faced a more immediate challenge, which was to arrest the metastasizing panic among his supporters. In 2008, Plouffe had airily dismissed Democrats who lost their minds in the midst of Palinmania as “bedwetters.” But now there was a similar drizzle as the public polls sharply narrowed—and worse. “Did Barack Obama just throw the entire election away?” blared the title of an Andrew Sullivan blog post.

Chicago’s internal polling strongly suggested that the answer was no—the race was back to where it had been following the party conventions, with Obama holding a three- or four-point lead.

Even so, as the full desultoriness of his Denver performance sank in, the president was consumed by a sense of responsibility—and shadowed by fears that his reelection was at risk. Outwardly, he took pains to project the opposite. When his staffers asked how he was doing, he replied, “I’m great.” To Plouffe, who had volunteered to soothe Sullivan, Obama joked, Someone’s gotta talk him off the ledge!

Obama returned from the West Coast and met with his debate team in the Roosevelt Room on the afternoon of October 10. He opened by saying he had read a memo drafted by Klain about what went awry in Denver and how to fix it before Hofstra, now six days away. He agreed with most of it but wanted everyone to know that they hadn’t failed him; he had failed them. “This is on me,” Obama said.

“I’m a naturally polite person,” he went on. Part of my problem is “erring on the side of being muted. We have to get me to a place where internally I’m not biting my tongue … It’s important for me to be fighting.”

The debate team received a boost 24 hours later from Obama’s second-in-­command, when Joe Biden took on Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky. “You did a great job,” the president told the V.P. by phone. “And you picked me up.”

In 36 hours, Obama would set off for debate camp in Williamsburg. But watching his understudy had already provided him with one helpful insight.

“These are not debates,” Obama observed to Plouffe. “These are gladiatorial enterprises.”

The first lady worried about her Maximus and his return to the Colosseum. In truth, she had fretted over the debates even before Denver. In July, around the time her husband’s prep started, she met with Plouffe and expressed firm opinions. That Barack had to speak from the gut, in language that regular folks could understand. Had to avoid treating the debates like policy seminars. Had to keep his head out of the clouds. (Michelle’s advisers paraphrased her advice as “It’s not about David Brooks; it’s about my mother.”) FLOTUS loved POTUS like nobody’s business, but she knew his faults well.

In the wake of Denver, Michelle was unfailingly encouraging with her husband: Don’t worry, you’re going to win the next one, just remember who you’re talking to, she told him. Before a small group of female bundlers, she pronounced that Barack had lost only because “Romney is a really good liar.”

Privately, however, Michelle was unhappy about how her spouse’s prep had been handled. There had been a late arrival in Denver, a rushed dinner at a crappy hotel. Inexplicably, he had been unable to reach Sasha and Malia by phone. He seemed overscheduled, overcoached, and under-rested. At first, Michelle conveyed her displeasure via senior White House adviser and First Friend Valerie Jarrett, who flooded the in-boxes of the debate team with pointed e-mails, employing the royal “we.” But the day before debate camp in Williamsburg, Michelle delivered marching orders directly to Plouffe: If the president wants our chef there, he should be there; if he wants Marty Nesbitt there, he should be there. Barack’s food, downtime, exercise, sleep, lodging—all of it affects his frame of mind. All of it has to be right.

Plouffe saluted sharply and thought, I guess the First Lady understands the stakes here.

That same Friday, October 12, Obama’s debate team gathered again in the Roo­sevelt Room for a final pre-camp session. The president was presented with a piece of overarching advice and a memo, both of which would have been inconceivable before Denver. The advice was: Be more like Biden, whose combativeness, scripted moments, and bluff calls on Ryan (“Not true!”) the night before had all proved effective tactics. The memo was an alliterative flash card to remind Obama of what it called “the Six A’s”:

Advocate (don’t explain)
Audience
Animated
Attacks
Answers with principles and values
Allow yourself to take advantage of openings


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