Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Nailbiting Time

The punditocracy is worried about Barack Obama. Maureen Dowd isn’t pleased with his debate performance (although she explains it’s because he really operates on a higher plane than mere mortal politicians):

The thorny questions Obama got in the debate were absolutely predictable, yet he seemed utterly unprepared and annoyed by them. He did not do well for the same reason he failed to outmaneuver Hillary in a year’s worth of debates: he disdains the convention, the need for sound bites and witty flick-offs and game-changing jabs.

Eleanor Clift was dismayed that he “spoke haltingly much of the time” and was “on the defensive,” and she now wonders if Obama would be a nominee “whose vulnerabilities boost chances of a Republican victory in the fall.” And others (here and here and here) are equally dismayed. Some are downright disgusted by the gap between Obama’s high-minded appeal to “new politics” and the cynical realities of his campaign. Some are disappointed by the fact that “it’s still true that after so many months of promising hard truths, Obama doesn’t really force people to accept any.”

Did one debate performance do all that? Was media confidence in him so shaky that a few tough questions from ABC moderators could send his standings into a tailspin? There is a bipolar quality to such opinion shifts: one day Obama is the messiah of American politics, the next he’s a deeply flawed candidate. And the public fretting that Hillary Clinton’s criticism prefigures eventual GOP attacks highlights a central problem for Obama: isn’t he going to be vulnerable when the GOP does launch its salvos?

But all this fretting is really to be expected: Obama has staked everything on his verbal acuity. When that fails, he has no safety net. He cannot point to tough campaigns or great legislative achievements to assure his base that he’s been through worse. So it all comes down to sustaining the balloon of excitement and novelty he has created.

Likewise, when Obama’s strange, far-Left associations come to the fore, or when his musings about average Americans make the news, the thin veneer of moderation and post-partisanship is torn. It makes people like Clift worry. And their fear is not entirely irrational.