Mitt Romney was partially right in his infamous 47 percent remarks. There are indeed people in this country who are going to vote for Barack Obama no matter what. Just not as many as he thinks there are.
That number was diminished after the first presidential debate on October 3, when some lifelong Democrats began changing their minds about who was going to get their vote on November 6. What was more disturbing than this development was the reason: the president of the United States didn't appear to want the job anymore. That wasn't just one man's observation, but that of millions across the country. So this week Barack Obama must admit that he is faced with arguably the biggest challenge of his presidency: winning back the hearts and minds of his own supporters. The drop in our enthusiasm is a huge reason why his commanding lead over his challenger disappeared overnight.
It will not be easy. That first debate hit such a nerve because it indicated more than just a bad night for the president. It was the culmination of several recent clues that all pointed toward a bigger picture we were beginning to see. For a lot of us it started taking shape during the Democratic convention. We saw the president bolstered up high by his most talented supporters. Michelle Obama moved and inspired us like no other first lady has in our lifetime. We were riveted by the triumphant return of Bill Clinton, whose concrete will and clarity made us wish we could hear from him every day. By the time the president spoke, he appeared to have been upstaged. His opening acts had set him up perfectly to talk about whatever he wanted, and we were ready to listen. But he seemed too humble, too apologetic, beaten down, almost as if he was starting to believe everything his detractors on the right and the left have been saying about him. At one point he gave us more credit for the nation's progress than he gave himself. "You were the change," he said. "You did that. You did that!" A feel-good moment, OK. Yay us. But still, perhaps for the first time, we watched him leave the microphone and felt unsatiated.
But it was nothing to worry about, we said. Clinton's ground-shaking declamation created a big enough wave for Obama to surf on while Romney spent the next month trying to pry his foot out of his mouth. The campaign had hit its stride at just the right time, and we couldn't wait for the debates. The stage was set for the Muhammed Ali of politics to deliver the KO. But it was all butterfly and no bee. While Mitt Romney showed up for a fight, and the rest of us tuned in for one, Barack Obama showed up for a polite conversation. His opponent had been lying and flipping his way into a corner for weeks, and was so well rehearsed that he could rattle off conflicting figures and positions with such confidence and conviction that if you didn't know any better you'd swear it was reality. It was up to the president, and no one else, to call him out and set the record straight for the American people. But Obama couldn't be bothered. It was getting hard and repetitive, he said later, to keep on uttering "and what you're saying isn't true". Maybe it is, Mr. President. But you have to. You were elected to. Telling the truth is only half the task. The other half is naming the lie.
The White House sets the bar in this country for integrity and accuracy, and the news media only reports. During George W. Bush's two terms in office, he and Karl Rove introduced the concept of the permanent campaign, which depended heavily on manipulating sources of public opinion in their favor at all times. That's never been Obama's style. He doesn't believe he must "catapult the propaganda" as Bush put it. And to his credit he hasn't needed to very much. But in a year when unprecedented sums of cash are spent on catapulting the propaganda against him, he needs all the tools he can employ. And no source of public opinion is more potent than nationally televised, commercial-free debates. Taking command of such tools is a large part of faithfully executing the office of President of the United States.
The president and his surrogates have said repeatedly, "look, we always knew this election was going to be close; that it was going to come down to the wire." Fine. But that doesn't mean you have to help close the gap. In his attempt to keep it cool, No-Drama-Obama has created a drama for himself of Shakespearean proportions. And it wasn't necessary to get our attention. We've already committed. We met the fundraising deadlines and set records for individual donors. We showed up in droves and overflowed the campaign rallies. We did that. We know we've got Obama's back. What we don't know anymore is if he has ours. We've been told dozens of times now that we can expect a more aggressive, lively president at the next debate. There's training at a newsworthy scenic resort and photo ops delivering pizza to his campaign staff. But the growing media circus surrounding the second debate doesn't do much to inspire confidence. The president would be much better served in a low-key, serious atmosphere, unworthy of coverage and shrouded in mystery. His aides can bring in all the photographers they want, and his public surrogates can talk all week about how he's bringing back his A game. But he, and only he, can and must prove that beyond a doubt on Tuesday night. So help him God.