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

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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.

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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.

I'm old enough to remember when Obama was running away with the election. It was early last week. He had taken a close race and gathered a decent lead of a few points in the polls. One pundit even approvingly cited a blog post suggesting that the president could win in a landslide and wrote a cover story for a major magazine speculating on how Obama would become "the Democrats' Reagan" when (not if) he won reelection. That pundit's name was ... Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan was perhaps irrationally exuberant about the president's chances, but given Obama's strong performance on the stump and in the polls prior to the election, there was no reason to doubt his commitment to the race.

And yet after 90 minutes on the stage in Denver, Sullivan, Tomasky, et al. are ready to write him off. Underlying all of this handwringing is lingering hero worship. If Obama is losing, or even just losing ground, they seem to believe, it can only be because Obama isn't trying. It's out of the question that Romney might be running a strong campaign, or that voters might be disaffected with a president who's failed to change the system as radically as he promised and has overseen an economy that, while improving, remains weak.

And what about the data we have? Don't even bother with the chorus of critics who complain that Obama has been campaigning too hard and governing too little. We know he raised $181 million in September, his strongest performance of the campaign cycle so far. That brings the total amount he's raised this year to about $871 million. According to data compiled by Brendan J. Doherty, a political scientist who tracked fundraising for his recent book The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign, Obama has held nearly three times as many fundraisers as any of his predecessors -- and that's just through Monday (see the far-right column):

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Look at the column for George W. Bush, who also faced a tough race late in the 2004 campaign. Did anyone question his will to win? "His unprecedented reelection fundraising efforts should put to rest any notion that President Obama hasn't dedicated himself to winning a second term in the Oval Office," Doherty wrote in an email. And of course there are daily events in states across the country -- speeches, town halls, photo ops, and more. Doherty calculates that there have been more than 150 additional, non-fundraising events over the last two years. Unofficial press corps statistician Mark Knoller counts 70 rallies this campaign, nearly a quarter of them in the crucial swing state of Ohio.

As Molly Ball reported from Denver the day after the debate, it seemed like a different Obama had come to speak to Coloradans, one who was full of fight, slinging jabs at Mitt Romney and sharply calling out misrepresentations made in the debate. That Obama was very clearly absent from the debate stage. But has he been entirely AWOL? Obviously not.

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David A. Graham

David 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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