By Reid Cherlin, GQ
This story originally appeared on GQ.com: Obama Mastered the Town Hall a Long Time Ago
It is no longer surprising that, for someone so frequently praised as one of the all-time greats of political communication, Barack Obama swings and misses a lot. But it is still mysterious. He gives dud interviews. He says boneheaded things at press conferences. More often than not, when the oratorical prodigy gets up to give a speech, it is dry and ponderous. And as we all know, he can put up one hell of a bad debate performance. What he is good at -- consistently and meaningfully -- and what I think gave him such a leg up last night, is the town hall setting.
Now, sure, some of what feeds the Obama mystique is things like the Al Green line, or his fluency with pop culture references. But, for years now, he has done himself wonders with the town hall, the kind of event where a microphone floats around the audience and people can ask whatever they want to. It's a format that works for him for a lot of reasons, and not just the obvious one that, like most candidates, he knows a lot. It has more to do with the way he can wander around the stage with microphone and stay loose ("I don't look at my pension; it's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long") how he can question the audience directly, and how he can connect his different answers in meaningful ways. (An example from last night, in which he tied gas prices to a question about employment prospects for new graduates: "I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States. That's going to help Jeremy get a job. It's also going to make sure that you're not paying as much for gas.) The give-and-take allows him to communicate not just a command of talking points, but a grasp of the broader world and a soundly reasoned approach.
As someone who was involved in his campaign the last time around, I feel pretty comfortable asserting that Obama was able to overcome his deficits in major primary states only because he was willing to do town halls every day -- often more than that -- in rinkydink school gyms and social halls. In New Hampshire, where I worked, you'd hear voters, bundling up to head back out into the snowy parking lot, talking about how nice he seemed, or how they loved his answer on wind energy, or parenting, or Iraq. Critically, you would hear them saying how he'd made them think a little differently about front-running Hillary Clinton, whom he painted at every opportunity as an institutionalist who wouldn't be able to change Washington. (There's a West Wing episode I was always reminded me of, where Josh Lyman sits in the back of some rubber-chicken dinner and marvels as then-governor Jed Bartlett comes, suddenly, brilliantly, bluntly alive in response to a voter's question. It used to be sort of like that.) He had a lot of ground to make up, but when he could get himself in front of voters to field questions, there was virtually no ceiling to the gains he could make in that town or county. And you know what happened from there.
So, in a sense, last night's debate wasn't about how Obama performed on America's biggest stage; it was about how he had always performed on its smallest.
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