Throughout the campaign, Obama had been criticized for the thin gruel of his second-term agenda. Now he acknowledged that it bothered him, too, and posed a challenge for the debates.
You keep telling me I can’t spend too much time defending my record, and that I should talk about my plans, he said. But my plans aren’t anything like the plans I ran on in 2008. I had a universal-health-care plan then. Now I’ve got … what? A manufacturing plan? What am I gonna do on education? What am I gonna do on energy? There’s not much there.
“I can’t tell you that ‘Okay, I woke up today, I knew I needed to do better, and I’ll do better,’ ” Obama said. “I am wired in a different way than this event requires.”
“I just don’t know if I can do this,” he said.
Obama’s advisers sat silently at first, absorbing the extraordinary moment playing out in front of them. In October of an election year, on the eve of a pivotal debate, the president wasn’t talking about tactics or strategy, about this line or that zinger. He was talking about personal contradictions and ambivalences, about his discomfort with the campaign he was running, about his unease with the requirements of politics writ large, about matters that were fundamental, even existential. We are in uncharted territory here, thought Klain.
More striking was Obama’s candor and self-awareness. The most self-contained president in modern history (and, possibly, the most self-possessed human on the planet) was laying himself bare, deconstructing himself before their eyes—and admitting he was at a loss.
All through his career, Obama had played by his own rules. He had won the presidency as an outsider, without the succor of the Democratic Establishment. He owed it little, offered less. He had ignored the traditional social niceties of the office, and largely resisted the media freak show, swatting away its asininities. He had refused to stomp his feet or shed crocodile tears over the BP spill, because neither would plug the pipe spewing oil from the ocean floor. He had eschewed sloganeering to sell his health-care plan, although it meant the world to him.
Now he was faced with an event that demanded an astronomical degree of fakery, histrionics, and stagecraft—and while he was ready to capitulate, trying to capitulate, he found himself incapable of performing not just to his own exalted standards but to the bare minimum of competence. Acres of evidence and the illusions of his fans to the contrary, Barack Obama, it turned out, was all too human.
Axelrod was more intimate with Obama than anyone in the room. The president’s humanity and frailties were no secret to Axe—nor was 44’s capacity for self-doubt. Since Denver, Obama had been subjected to a hailstorm of criticism, a flood of panic, and a blizzard of psychoanalysis. Like every president, he claimed he was impervious to it. But Axelrod knew it was a lie. All this shit is in his head, the strategist thought.
Look, said Axelrod softly, we know that you find these debates frustrating, that they’re more performance than substance. It’s why you are a good president. It’s why all of us feel so strongly about your winning. But you have to find a way to get over the hump and stop fighting this game—to play this game, wrap your arms around this game.
For the next hour, the three Obamans tried to carry the president across the psychic chasm. Plouffe reminded him of the stakes. “We can’t have a repeat of Denver tomorrow night,” he warned. “Right now, we’re not losing any of our vote, but we’re on probation. If we have another performance that causes people to scratch their heads, we’re gonna start losing votes. We gotta stop this now.”
Over Obama’s despair about his lack of an agenda, Plouffe and Axelrod took him on. “You do have an agenda, goddammit!” Plouffe said. “This isn’t a bunch of b.s. you’re selling. This is an agenda the American people support and believe in. But they’re not gonna believe in it if you don’t treat it that way, by selling it with great fervor. If you sell your agenda and Romney sells his agenda with equal enthusiasm, we will win.
“Think about this,” Plouffe went on. “You have two debates left. So take out Romney, take out moderator questions: You’ve got basically 75 to 80 minutes left of doing this in your entire life. That’s less than the length of a movie! You can do this! I know it’s uncomfortable. I know it’s unnatural. But that’s all. That’s the finish line, you know?”