David Frum

10.05.12

Obama Should Have Spent More Time in Court, Ctd.

More reader feedback on why Obama struggled in Wednesday's debate. Jeb Golinkin writes:

I think the reader's remark is very insightful, but I'm not sure President Obama is either a capable debater or a capable communicator. He is a capable thinker and has many interesting ideas and solutions—but the this is first true war of ideas with a man of equal intellect that the POTUS has ever been involved in. Sure, Barack Obama has been in heated political fights—but they were primary fights fought against men and women who agreed with him on most tough ideological issues.

The President's only real general election fight came at a time where historical conditions virtually assured that he would prevail (after Bush, after a meltdown, against a man who, while capable, was not Barack Obama's intellectual equal). In Bob Woodward's new book, The Price of Politics, Larry Summers is quoted by sources as saying that the President "doesn't like the game." This comment confirms what many of us have sensed all along—Barack Obama considers himself the most reasonable person in an insane and stupid world—and also because it reveals that, at least in one respect, a man who is often lauded for his nuanced perspective of the world is in fact quite simple minded. Barack Obama sees the political world in very black and white terms: facts, truths, falsehoods, lies. So when Larry Summers says Barack Obama "doesn't like the game," what he means is that Barack Obama does not grasp the notion that facts and reality are in fact the object of political contests. Fighting over things you believe to be obvious is a major part of partisan politics. Larry Summers is uniquely qualified to talk about "the game" because he is one of the great contestants in the war to claim facts and define reality of his generation.

Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men, describes Summers as the ultimate bulldog in the war for influence over the President. Aside from being exceedingly smart, Suskind also paints a portrait of an arrogant man with a profound belief in himself and his ability to sell reality as he sees it. Like Don Rumsfeld before him, Suskind's Summers dominates equally bright and many times more qualified thinkers in battles over particular decisions because Summers is more aggressive in advocating for his facts and his solutions. Like a lawyer who forgets that he has been studying his case for a year and the jury is just hearing it for the first time, the experts lose to Summers because their responses take the "facts" for granted while Summers battles to claim them with everything he can think of.

Over and over, people have spoken about President Obama's prowess as a communicator. But the reality is that the President is a better advocate for himself than he is for his ideas. Many of us (including myself) like Barack Obama the man, but we are not sure why. "Likeability" might suffice in wars against inferior intellects and lunatics...but it will not work against Mitt Romney, who has spent his life in a harsh business where results are painfully measurable and the only currency that matters to investors is green. Unless President Obama starts explaining advancing an affirmative argument for why we should give him four more years, Mitt Romney will continue to look like the more powerful man when the two stand on the same stage.

PS: This is why the Obama people should and will viciously attack Mitt Romney for a host of ridiculous reasons—Mitt Romney is bad at cosmetic wars. He is uncomfortable talking about Mitt Romney, Mormonism, taxes, his good deeds, his wealth, why he doesn't drink. But give him numbers and metrics to talk about and he transforms into Bain Mitt. Bain Mitt looks the President straight in the eye and proceeds to demonstrate to the country why he made nine zillion dollars in the most measurable business in the world.

And the lawyer friend who initiated this thread responds to the responses.

At the risk of beating this to death, a short rebuttal to the . . . rebuttal. Obama reminds me of the lawyer who is good at writing briefs and thinks that should make him good at oral argument. They’re extremely different things. It’s easy to remember what’s in your brief—that’s “preparation.” What’s very, very hard is when a judge asks you a question out of left field or opposing counsel makes a brilliant point that you never anticipated. That takes an ability to think on your feet, regroup, and respond as though you had already thought of it ten different ways to Sunday and X is the way the court needs to view that issue, thankyouverymuch. It’s not a time for great nuance or reflection. It’s the closest thing a lawyer ever gets to being on the foul line with the game at stake: everyone is watching, your brain is spinning, your hands are sweating, and it feels hard to breathe, but you have to deliver right now.

Once before our state supreme court, I was halfway through my argument and a justice made it sphincter-tightengly clear that the court had no idea what I was talking about. By God’s amazingly good grace, an entire paragraph of completely new argument appeared in my head, I took a breath, and it all came spilling out. (I won, btw.)

I saw that same panic in Obama’s face last night, and I kept waiting for him to martial all those big brain cells of his and get it done. But rather than belt out something clear, he mumbled a lot of I-don’t-even-remember-what. He never faced a good debater in 2008 in McCain, and the Dem primary was a whole other animal. I mean, what’s easier for you? Facing off on live TV against a smart Democrat or crafting a CNN.com piece while sitting on your couch in your pajamas?

Exactly