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The Intervention

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Barnett and others believed that Obama’s playbook had to be stripped down more dramatically, to a series of simple and crisp bullet points on the most likely topics to come up in the debate. Klain agreed and wanted to go a step further. In 1996, Democratic strategist Mark Penn had devised something called “debate-on-a-page” for Gore in his V.P. face-off with Jack Kemp. Klain suggested they do the same for Obama: a sheet of paper with a handful of key principles, attacks, and counterattacks.

Axelrod and Plouffe thought something more radical was in order. For the past six years, they had watched Obama struggle with his disdain for the theatricality of politics—not just debates, but even the soaring speeches for which he was renowned. Obama’s distrust of emotional string-pulling and resistance to the practical necessities of the sound-bite culture: These were elements of his personality that they accepted, respected, and admired. But they had long harbored foreboding that those proclivities might also be a train wreck in the making. Time and again, Obama had averted the oncoming locomotive. Had embraced showmanship when it was necessary. Had picked his people up and carried them on his back to the promised land. But now, with a crucial debate less than two days away—one that could either put the election in the bag or turn it into a toss-up—Obama was faltering in a way his closest advisers had never witnessed. They needed to figure out what had gone haywire from the inside out. They needed, as someone in the staff room put it, to stage an “intervention.”

The next morning, October 15, Klain stumbled from his room to the Resort Center, eyes puffy and nerves jangled. He’d been up all night hammering together and e-mailing around his debate-on-a-page draft. In Obama’s hold room, the team members gathered and laid out their plan for the day. They would screen video for the boss. They would show him transcripts. They would present him with his cheat sheets. They would devote the day to topic-by-topic drills until he had his answers memorized.

Normally, the whole group would now meet with the president to critique the previous night’s mock. Instead, everyone except Axelrod, Klain, and Plouffe cleared the room just before 10 a.m. Obama was on his way. The intervention was at hand.

Where’s everybody else?” Obama asked as he ambled in across the speckled green carpet with his chief of staff, Jack Lew, at his side. “Where’s the rest of the team?”

We met this morning and decided we should have this smaller meeting first, one of the interventionists said.

Obama, in khakis and rolled-up shirtsleeves, looked nonplussed. Between his conversation with Nesbitt the night before and a morning national-security briefing with Lew, he was aware that his people were unhappy with the mock—but not fully clued in to the depth of their concern.

The president settled into a cushy black sofa at one end of the room. On settees to his left were Axelrod, Plouffe, and Lew; to his right, in a blue blazer, was Klain, now caffeinated and coherent.

“We’re here, Mr. President,” Klain began, “because we need to have a serious conversation about why this isn’t working and the fundamental transformation we need to achieve today to avoid a very bad result tomorrow night.” We’re not going to get there by continuing to grind away and marginally improve, Klain went on. This is not about changing the words in your debate book, because the difference between the answers that work and the answers that don’t work is just 15 or 20 percent. This is about style, engagement, speed, presentation, attitude. Candidly, we need to figure out why you’re not rising to and meeting the challenge—why you’re not really doing this, why you’re doing … something else.

Obama didn’t flinch. “Guys, I’m struggling,” he said somberly. “Last night wasn’t good, and I know that. Here’s why I think I’m having trouble. I’m having a hard time squaring up what I know I need to do, what you guys are telling me I need to do, with where my mind takes me, which is: I’m a lawyer, and I want to argue things out. I want to peel back layers.”

The ensuing presidential soliloquy went on for ten minutes—an eternity in Obama time. His tone was even and unemotional, but searching, introspective, diagnostic, vulnerable. Psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually, he was placing his cards face up on the table.

“When I get a question,” he said, “I go right to the logical.” You ask me a question about health care. There’s a problem, and there’s a response. Here’s what my opponent might say about it, so I’m going to counteract that. Okay, we’re gonna talk about immigration. Here’s what I’d like to say—but I can’t say that. Think about what that means. I know what I want to say, I know where my mind takes me, but I have to tell myself, No, no, don’t do that—do this other thing. It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed.


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