When pundits were condemning President Obama's first debate performance I saw "groupthink" in action. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people, in which the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. I found almost no commentators willing to look at Obama's debate performance as strategic. They all emphatically condemned his performance as horrendous, weak, wonk, tired, professorial, and asleep.
Groupthink is dangerous -- and when done by the media is can have terrible repercussions. The media becomes its own echo chamber and then they can get it very, very wrong. They can play an "agenda setting" role -- and like their failure to tell accurate stories of the Iraq War -- they can help alter outcomes to disastrous effect.
Luckily, Tuesday night's Second Presidential Debate proved that Obama is the politician of the American Century -- and he played the media to his advantage. His first debate's opening gambit was to derail the FoxNews' endless narrative that he was a race baiting angry black man. And he did that. For two weeks after the first debate FoxNews and other right wing media got off message and instead reframed Obama as wonky, boring and professorial. Obama could not have paid enough to be reframed in this way for the FoxNews audience -- and for that sliver of undecided voters that he (and Romney) are so desirous of winning over.
Having established his non threatening professorial demeanor in the eyes of the voting public (once again) -- Obama was free to be passionate, to circle and crush Romney in this second debate. Indeed, Romney's performance was still stellar -- until the serious flub over Libya. Romney falsely stated that Obama had not called the attack on our embassy an act of terror for two weeks -- though in fact Obama had done so within 24hours. To make matters worse for Romney even the moderator Candy Crowley corrected him on the facts and verified the Obama statement and transcript. (After the debate even Romney's debate coach Senator Portman of Ohio noted how the Romney flub seemed to have affected negatively the remainder of the Governor's performance).
Obama is a master of winning the political game, not just the debate. He doesn't miss the checkmate for captured pawn. To lose a pawn in chess does not portend to be eventually checkmated -- and this is where the pundits went so wrong. To lose a pawn is not to lose the entire strategic setup for the checkmate -- it may indeed be the strategy to lose the pawn so as to setup and win game. And that is what Obama did.
Obama's opening gambit in debate one gave him permission to pounce in tonight's debate and finally get to the 47% issue that has been waiting all along for him to drive home:
But I also believe that when he [Romney] said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims, who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.
Folks on Social Security who have worked all their lives. Veterans who have sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas tax, but don't make enough income.
And that is how Obama plays the political chess game. He got the country listening, and especially the likely undecided voters to listen to him -- and passionately. A CNN/ORC International survey -- the first "who won?" poll to be released after the second presidential debate -- indicates 46% of debate watchers say Obama won the debate, while 39% say Romney fared better. But that is not the point. The end game is not winning this debate -- the end game is getting a majority of voters to vote for either Romney or Obama in November.
Obama has quashed the false race-based narratives, marginalized Romney as too far right, and now positioned himself fearlessly as presidential and a warm "alpha male."
And if I am right, Obama has already set up Romney for checkmate.