What's With All the Pundits Who Think They Can Read Obama's Mind?

After one 90-minute debate, the amateur psychologists of press corps are ready to diagnose the president as wanting to lose, facts and logic be damned.


On Friday, I rounded up some of the silliest, most substance-free explanations -- or really, speculations -- for why President Obama did so poorly in last week's debate. One of them, which I only mentioned in passing, is the idea that the Obama wants to lose. It came from Kevin Baker of Harper's, who -- in the course of a lengthy, scorned-lover cri de coeur against Obama's debate performance -- howled, "There is no reasonable explanation -- no acceptable explanation -- for such a performance .... Obama signaled that he wants out." (Baker also says that Obama can't wait to be ex-president and that Democratic leaders are only in it for self-advancement, although it's hard to see what a career politician would desire more than being president.)

It turns out that Baker wasn't just a lone voice crying in the wilderness -- he was the vanguard of the punditocracy, which has since turned the observation into a full blown explanatory meme. Andrew Sullivan, who's in full-on nervous-breakdown mode, accused Obama of throwing the game, too. "I've never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week," he wrote.

Elsewhere on The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky began with a post by my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta arguing that Obama seems weary and took it to an extreme conclusion: "Someone needs to ask the cut-to-the-chase question: is he enthusiastic about keeping this job, or he is just maybe tired of being president?" (His headline was the even blunter "Does Obama Even Want to Win the Election?") Tomasky looked deep into Obama's soul, by what means he doesn't reveal, and saw an ego perhaps too bruised to hold on. "I doubt Obama had ever been hated by anybody in his life. Now, 40 or so million Americans hate him. Must be stunning to him, still," he wrote.

It's not just liberals. The Washington Examiner's Byron York is ready to diagnose ADD from a distance, Bill Frist-style. "A look at the president's career shows he has never stayed in a job four years without looking to move on to something better," York said. "His entire career suggests that by now he should be angling for a bigger, better job. The problem is, there isn't such a position -- and a second term in the same old job doesn't count."

Henry Porter of the Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, walks right up to the precipice, asking, "Has a disillusioned Barack Obama lost the will to win?" Porter says that the president could be forgiven for "a subconscious desire to quit the White House and withdraw to Harvard or Chicago to write books." But he eventually steps back: "Judging by his punchy speeches at the end of last week, Obama still has an appetite for the job. Something that is forgotten in all the performance reviews of Denver is that the debate brought out the ideological differences of the two men in vivid detail."

I'm old enough to remember when Obama was running away with the election. It was early last week.

It's surprising anyone has to explain this, but this meme is problematic for two big reasons: It privileges pundits' self-proclaimed powers of telepathy and interpreting body-language over the balance of the available evidence. And what hard evidence there is suggests just the opposite.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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