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The Intervention

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The first debate.  

Ron Klain had no shame about such contrivances—whatever worked. A Washington super-staffer, Klain had served on every Democratic presidential debate-prep team for twenty years and co-led Obama’s effort in 2008. But his relationship with the president was not straightforward or particularly close. Right after the Denver disaster, he offered to resign from the debate team, but Obama refused to let him. Klain’s ego, pride, and future ambitions were all wrapped up in correcting the miscues from the Mile High City and constructing a comeback at Hofstra.

Klain turned Obama’s prep regime upside down: new strategy, new tactics, new structure. In Williamsburg, there would be an intense concentration on performance, including speeding up Obama’s ponderous delivery. There would be less policy Q&A and more rehearsal of set pieces and lines that popped. Less emphasis on programmatic peas and spinach, more on anecdote and empathy. Contrary to Clinton’s advice, there would be plenty of punching to go along with the counterpunching.

Camp commenced on Saturday in Williamsburg. Two levels down from the lobby of the Kingsmill Resort Center, on the precisely built replica of the Hofstra town-hall set, the president spent most of the day sharpening his answers with Klain and Axelrod. That night, his mock went better than any of the six sessions prior to Denver. The members of the debate team weren’t ready to declare victory yet, but they were relieved. Obama’s friend Nesbitt was exultant.

“That’s some good shit!” he told the president, patting him on the back. “That’s my man! He’s back!”

In the Sunday daytime sessions, Obama showed still more improvement, honing a solid attack on the 47 percent and another on his rival’s economic agenda. (“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan, and that’s to make sure folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”) As the team took time off for dinner before Obama and Kerry went at it again, Klain thought, Okay, we’re getting to a better place. Plouffe thought, He’s locked in.

A little before 9 p.m., they returned to the Resort Center. Obama and Kerry grabbed their handheld microphones and took their places—and the president proceeded to deliver the Mock From Hell.

Even before Nasty Obama snarled at Kerry-as-Mitt and Anita Dunn as CNN’s Candy Crowley at the 39:35 mark, Klain was mortified. The president’s emotional flatness from Denver was back. He was making no connection with the voter stand-ins asking questions. He was wandering aimlessly, digressing compulsively, not merely chasing rabbits but stalking them to the ends of the Earth. His cadences were hesitant and maple-syrupy slow: phrase, pause, phrase, pause, phrase. His answers were verbose and utterly devoid of message.

In Klain’s career as a debate maestro, he had been involved in successes (Kerry over Bush three times in a row) and failures (Gore’s symphony of sighs in 2000). But he had never seen anything like this. After all the happy talk from Obama and his consistent, if small, steps forward, the president was regressing—with 48 hours and only one full day of prep between them and Hofstra.

At the Pettus House, a colonnaded red- brick mansion on the riverbank where Obama and Nesbitt were bunking, the two men stayed up late hashing out what hadn’t worked, how the president was still struggling to find the zone. “You can’t get mad” at Romney’s distortions, Nesbitt said. “You come off better when you just say, ‘Now, that’s fucking ridiculous.’ When you laugh, that shit works, man.”

In Obama’s hold room at the Resort Center, his staff was moving past puzzlement and panic toward practical considerations. The lesson that Plouffe had taken from Denver was that you could no longer count on fourth-quarter Obama; what you saw in practice was what you got on the debate stage. If he doesn’t have a good mock tomorrow, there’s no reason to believe that it’ll get fixed when he gets to New York, Plouffe said.

Two schools of thought quickly emerged within the team. The first, pushed by Washington super-lawyer Bob ­Barnett—who was also a longtime debate prepper and was there serving on Kerry’s staff—was that Obama needed to be shown video in the morning. “This is what we did with Clinton,” Barnett sagely noted. The other, advanced by Favreau, was that Obama should be given transcripts. He’s a writer, Favreau argued. Words on the page will make a deeper impression.

The full transcript was in hand within 45 minutes—and became a source of gallows humor. As the clock ticked well past midnight, Favreau stagily read aloud some of Obama’s most dreadful answers. Soon his colleagues joined in, with Axelrod, Benenson, and Plouffe offering recitations and laughing deliriously over the absurdity and horror of the circumstances.


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