No He Can't: Obama's Real Debate Problem

No he can't. Sen. Barack Obama probably won't "win" the first presidential debate, no matter when it occurs.

Obama is not an expert debater, and if Sen. John McCain's attempt to skip the first debate does nothing else, it suggests that this is Obama's turf. While McCain has risked appearing like he is afraid to spar during a crisis, which seems bad, his actions also signal to voters that Obama must be a tough debating foe. McCain has widened the spread -- against a mediocre debater.

Few deny that Obama is brilliant and inspiring. He is eloquent in big speeches and thoughtful in interviews. His presidential debate performances, however, are lackluster. This was my take on Obama during a Democratic debate in November, during a key stretch of the run-up to Iowa:

Given Obama's sluggish[ness] it's striking to see that he actually spoke more than any other candidate (18 minutes). This was the kind of performance that might give a campaign manager heartburn: a speaker who sounds worse in a small field, when the audience hears extended remarks.

This week, the New York Times conducted a review of Obama's "earlier debate performances," surveyed a range of political analysts, and concluded that he is "uneven" in debates. It's weird, but Obama's strengths can morph into weaknesses during lectern combat: "Obama has a tendency to overintellectualize and to lecture, befitting his training as a lawyer and law professor," notes the article, and "he tends to the earnest and humorless when audiences seem to crave passion and personality." A recent A.P. evaluation was even tougher -- and this is from an objective news article: "Obama has rarely wowed people in political debates. He can come across as lifeless, aloof and windy."

Turn to Obama supporters, and the assessments are even more biting. The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, who often runs his blog as a shadow Obama war room, lamented how Obama can deterioirate before your eyes in debates. From April:

It was a lifeless, exhausted, drained and dreary Obama we saw tonight. I've seen it before when he is tired, but this was his worst performance yet on national television. He seemed crushed and unable to react. This is big-time politics... [b]ut there is no disguising the fact that he wilted, painfully.

No one can read voters' minds, but it's a safe bet that they're expecting Obama to look much better than some of those primary debate performances. Given his recent surge in the (often irrelevent) national polls, and a perception that McCain is worried about Obama's debate prowess, the expectations are unrealistically high. The issues still favor Obama, given the twin Republican failures of deregulated markets and deemphasizing Al Qaeda for Iraq. Yet McCain has been clear, from lying to lipstick to running from Friday's debate, he does not intend to win on "the issues."

Ari Melber writes for The Nation and The Washington Independent, where this piece first appeared.