The odds are still on the president’s side, but he needs to learn how to make a stronger case for himself to win a second term.
The aftermath of the debate in the media was entirely predictable. Democrats were depressed and said as little as possible. The Republican columnists took — are still taking — very, very long victory laps. I try to keep a balanced view of all this, but it does seem to me that people like George Will, Charles (the world’s sourest writer) Krauthammer, and Peggy Noonan left all thought behind, registered as Republican precinct captains, and simultaneously underwent an ecstatic transfiguration to a wondrous level of enlightenment. This is a lot to load on one debate.
There is no question that President Obama was clobbered in this debate. I’ve gone back and watched it again and if anything a second watching of this harshens the verdict. I can’t remember anything quite like this in all the debates I’ve seen. But it is useful to ask: what are the consequences and what’s the evidence? Are the election odds now completely turned upside down? Should we start practicing to say Secretary of State Bachmann?
The best evidence for this side is the national polls, and the best piece I’ve seen was this analysis by Nate Silver today. The average of all of the post debate polls suggests that Obama now leads by 1.7 percentage points nationally and Romney gained 2.9 percentage points after the debate — about what he lost with his “47 percent” comments.
How have these changes affected actual election probabilities? A fair amount. Nate Silver is currently forecasting that President Obama has a 74.8 percent chance of winning, with 302 electoral votes and a national margin of 2.5 percentage points. InTrade bettors give President Obama a 63 percent chance of winning, and the Iowa Election Market gives him a 67 percent chance. Real Clear Politics’s “forced choice” map gives Obama 294 electoral votes. All have moved a fair amount toward Romney. As one example, according to Nate Silver’s probabilities, Romney’s chances moved up from 14 percent to 25 percent — an 80 percent improvement.
But national polls don’t tell you much at this point. We elect presidents on a state by state basis. There are only six states in the country where the odds are less than 80 percent of either an Obama or Romney win. Those states are Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida on the Obama side, with all except Florida suggesting at least a 60 percent chance of an Obama win. The sixth state is North Carolina, with a 69 percent chance of a Romney win. I’ve yet to see a single statistical analysis that showed the debate changed the voting odds of even one state.
So in my view, we’re back to where we were. Not a revolution in probabilities, but a big self-inflicted wound for President Obama. Romney’s debate performance moved this election from one in which he was teetering on the brink of disaster to one in which he has an outside chance. The odds remain substantially in the president’s favor, but the outcome is a hell of a lot dicier for him than it had to be.
But why did this result happen? On my second watching, four things jumped out to me beyond the fact that Mitt Romney was very good. First, the president was extremely cautious because he knows this race is basically going his way. Second, the president was obviously irritated and set on his heels at being directly challenged. Third, the president did not contend well in the cut and thrust of the political policy arguments. Fourth, the president had no agenda or narrative.
And on the premise that hard lessons, if they don’t kill you, can teach you something if you let them, I think the president needs to draw these big lessons: presidential management and self-awareness matter, and agendas or the lack of them matter. And nothing, nothing in politics can be taken for granted.
A lot of the issue comes down to this: White Houses — all of them — are mostly royal courts. Everything revolves around the president; the place is mostly filled with courtiers who ask themselves every morning, “How can I get in or stay in the president’s good graces?” And this is just as true of the president’s pals from home as anyone else. People plot intricately how to be sure the president sees them working themselves into exhaustion just for him. Presidents are very, very, very unlikely to be directly challenged on anything. They think they are; they always see themselves as the kind of person who wants to be challenged. But they aren’t challenged. Everything is couched painstakingly politely; any possible disagreement is muted. Presidents never hear the simple declarative statement, “Mr. President, you are wrong.” Years before I went into a White House, a senior staff member of the Johnson White House told me, “in the last half hour of his last day in office, the president can still make you or break you.” None of this is planned; it all just happens.
Presidents are changed by all of this. (I think the only president of the last 100 years who was not changed was Dwight David Eisenhower.) On being elected, they are prone to deciding their staff was right: this election really is a massive endorsement of “me” and the voters really do believe in all of my ideas. Early-term White Houses are so caught up in the sheer wonder of being them that they easily dismiss challenges, challengers, and disagreements as wrong-think. They see the press as a bunch of disrespectful, unruly, and uncouth folks — this is true, but beside the point — whom they try to avoid. (President Obama has had very, very few real press conferences.) As a term progresses and things get hard, the internal forces of White Houses and Cabinets edge reality farther and farther away, and mostly what a president hears is how unreasonable the critics are. If anyone dares to point out that there isn’t a narrative and there isn’t an agenda, they are buried in talking points and the president is reassured.
This cycle is as old as the hills and it happens to almost all of them. And it sure looks as though it happened to President Obama.
So what does he do for the next debate, and a second term? First, he can’t overreact. Al Gore’s mistakes in his first debate led him to be so polite and deferential in the second debate that he made it a non-event. The president can’t make the opposite mistake. Second, he has to get better in a hurry at the cut and thrust; he cannot allow his staff to lull him into the impression that it all wasn’t so bad after all. Finally, he has to find a way to tell his story and underline his agenda so that normal people beyond the rarified levels of the White House know what he’s talking about. (Take as an example Governor Romney’s “plan.” It is for the good, and against the bad. That’s it. It will disappear completely from sight in 30 nanoseconds should he be elected. But it’s a “plan” and you don’t beat “plan” with “no plan”.)
For a second term, President Obama should consider the following. A real transition in which policies and people are rethought. Exposure to more debate, to much more of the uncouth media. A major policy decision very soon after the election so that he determines the debate. A simple, credible story about America’s future.
But right now there is less than one month remaining and the second debate is impending. The president is, without question, the single most talented speaker in American politics today. He is ahead today. There is no move Governor Romney can make that President Obama cannot counter. But if he doesn’t sprint for the next 27 days, this could end badly.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.