obama debate
Photo credit: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

Recently I did what no sane person would: I watched the entire set of presidential primary debates, in sequence, like a boxed set of a TV show. In scale this was like three or four seasons’ worth of The Sopranos. The Democrats had 26 debates, nearly all more than one hour long, and all but one of them with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Republicans had 21, if you count the session for which a single “debater” showed up. That was the NAACP forum in Detroit, which all eight Democrats but only Representative Tom Tancredo of the Republicans agreed to attend. I had seen only two of the debates in real time because so few were carried internationally. Those that were available in streaming video were too slow and jerky to be watchable in China, where I’ve been living. (It eventually took more than two weeks of round-the-clock Internet downloading to collect all the files.)

I had read many of the transcripts and much of the resulting coverage, but had not been part of the shared viewing experience of getting to know the candidates through the drawn-out series of live encounters. As with trial testimony, job interviews, and blind dates, seeing people interact is the only way to understand what is going on. We don’t watch debates to learn what someone thinks about Social Security. We watch to see how the contenders look next to their opponents, how they react when challenged, how well or poorly they come up with the words we later see in print. That’s what I hadn’t seen until I watched the debates end to end.

Reagan dismisses Carter with a “There you go again” in 1980

There have been nine series of televised general-election debates. These started with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, resumed with Ford-Carter in 1976, and have been a campaign fixture ever since. In all but one election, the debates produced a moment that figured in the ultimate outcome. (The exception was Clinton-Dole in 1996, when neither man said anything that changed a voter’s mind.) The dramatic exchanges that made a difference—Ronald Reagan’s amused and dismissive “There you go again” against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis’s too-composed look when asked in 1988 how he would react if his wife were raped, George H.W. Bush’s desperate “when will this end?” glance at his wristwatch during a town-hall session with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, Al Gore’s operatic sighs about George W. Bush in 2000—would have passed unnoticed in a transcript. The transcript conveys only part of, for example, the alarming meandering in Ronald Reagan’s soliloquy at the end of his second 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Reagan, looking confused and forgetting his point, was rescued only when the moderator, Edwin Newman, announced that time was up: “Mr. President, I’m obliged to cut you off there, under the rules of the debate. I’m sorry.” Mondale should have been sorry, too.

I paid more attention to the Democrats, and will concentrate on them here, because their debates went on three months longer, mattered more, and revealed more about them as possible leaders. What the debates did for the Republicans was eliminate one candidate, on grounds of sheer torpor: Fred Thompson. They gave another, Ron Paul, a platform for ongoing Internet-based influence and elevated a third, Mike Huckabee, out of the fringe category, thanks to his sounding wittier and more amiable than the other candidates. John McCain gave clues to what he will do this fall, but nothing he said in the debates was a key to his success in winning the nomination, nor were Rudy Giuliani’s and Mitt Romney’s debate performances pivotal in their failures.

For the Democrats, though, the debates were dramatic in themselves and important in shaping the result. Hillary Clinton seriously blew only one answer of the countless hundreds she delivered. That was her fumbling response on whether she thought illegal immigrants should get driver’s licenses—delivered 100 minutes into a late-night debate in Philadelphia last October, when she looked drained. As with Gerald Ford’s famous fumbled comments about Eastern Europe when debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, what she meant to say was obvious. Ford meant to say that the Poles and others behind the Iron Curtain had an unconquerable spirit and would never accept Soviet domination. What he actually said, and dug himself in on, was that they were free.

Clinton answers a question about issuing licenses to illegal immigrants

What Clinton meant to say was that then-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, in proposing licenses for illegal immigrants so as to regulate their safety on the roads, was making the best of a bad situation created by the chaos of federal policy on immigration. The state of New York had no way to enforce a border-control policy of its own. So it was doing what it could to reduce the traffic risk.

What she actually said, and stuck to when atypically given several chances to clarify by the questioner, the late Tim Russert, was that Spitzer’s plan made “a lot of sense” but wasn’t “the best thing” to do, without indicating how those two views could coexist. In other circumstances, she would have batted away this issue as she routinely did much tougher questions. (The two signs that she was ready to dispose of a nuisance issue: “I’ve said many times …,” so whatever has come up can’t be news; and “the real question is …,” the politician’s standard way of shifting discussion back to more-favorable ground. Barack Obama’s version of this tactic is to say “it’s just common sense …,” indicating that what he’s about to say is restating the obvious and reasonable. “Look” or “listen” at the start of an answer is his version of “the real question is,” a sign that he wants to answer something different from what was asked.) But in the real circumstances, the blog and cable-news controversy over her “stumble” and “equivocation” significantly cut her then-large national lead over Obama and gave him an opening.

For Democrats, the season’s debates produced more news and newsworthy quotes than those in past campaigns. Indeed, the most newsmaking comment that came from anywhere except a debate was Obama’s remark at a California fund-raiser that economically strained and “bitter” people clung to their guns and God—which of course became a question for him at the subsequent debates.

And apart from their effect on the nomination contest that has ended, the Democratic debates show something unexpected about the general-election contest this fall. The conventional wisdom is that debates were Obama’s great weak point. While Hillary Clinton time and again beat expectations, Obama never managed to put her away or receive big acclaim after a debate.

Because his major speeches were so influential, long, and carefully wrought, it seems natural to conclude that today’s bear-baiting debates are just the wrong vehicle for him. “You’ve got to remember, he is a constitutional-law professor,” I was told by Newton Minow, who as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under John F. Kennedy declared television a “vast wasteland” and who as a partner in the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin hired Obama as a summer associate 19 years ago. “He’s used to seeing all sides of an issue, and he tends to lay out all sides before giving his own view.” By that time, the clock has run out.

Obama in a 2004 debate with Alan Keyes as “a relaxed, funny politician unafraid to go jab for jab”

That’s true, but it can’t be the whole answer. There was a time when he seemed naturally suited to rapid-fire debate, as I found by watching an earlier and less familiar set of Obama’s debate performances. The contrast is not as stark as one I discussed in an article before the presidential debates of 2004, which concerned George W. Bush’s transformation from the on-point and seemingly silver-tongued Texas politician who bested Democratic opponents in gubernatorial debates in the 1990s to the aphasic figure we have known on the national scene. But it is readily apparent. The Obama who took on the Republican ambassador, perennial presidential candidate, talk-show host, and motormouth Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate debates of 2004—a relaxed, funny politician unafraid to go jab for jab—differed noticeably from the surprisingly tentative, slow-to-attack candidate who survived but did not triumph through this season’s debates.

I won’t contend that Beijing, over a shaky Internet connection, is the ideal vantage point from which to follow every nuance of a primary campaign. But living at a remove from day-by-day coverage on TV and minute-by-minute chatter in Washington can highlight certain trends and details that are easily lost in the ongoing wash of news. For me, it had the effect of clarifying the strengths and occasional weaknesses created by Obama’s rhetorical style; suggesting what he has to fear in the debates with John McCain; and indicating how rhetoric might affect his governing style if he wins. It also provided a surprisingly sharp reminder of the latest twist in the story of the press’s role in helping choose our president.

mccain debate
Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

I. The Carnival

The 40-plus people who served as moderators through the debate season varied widely in their assertiveness and willingness to act as if the assembled politicians were just another set of guests on a talk show. Local newspeople plus those from PBS and NPR tended to be the most respectful. Wolf Blitzer was the most intrusive and self-aggrandizing. His CNN colleague Anderson Cooper, who moderated the YouTube debates for both parties with video questions from viewers, was at the other extreme, with a nice combination of assertiveness and good-humored restraint. Along with Cooper, the other moderator who best kept control without hogging the stage was Brian Williams of NBC. Williams was in charge of the very first Democratic debate, on April 26 of last year, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Yet it was the smooth, non-histrionic Williams who put the candidates through a series of stunts.

Raise your hand if you’ve owned a gun. Raise your hand if you “believe there is such a thing as a global war on terror.” Raise your hand if you support Representative Dennis Kucinich’s plan to impeach Dick Cheney. On the merits, these were not really ideal yes/no questions—especially the most important of them, about the war on terror, in which the only things that matter are the reasoning and plans that would come after the yes or the no. But the amazing part of this process was the sheer indignity of it. All eight of these people had been public officials. Odds were that one among them would be the next president of the United States. Yet they compliantly held up their hands like grade-schoolers or contestants on Fear Factor. While candidates are subjected to almost everything during a long primary season and are used to skepticism and outright hostility from the press, serving as game-show props represented something new.

Brian Williams asked many meaty questions that night, and his bearing through that and two other debates was respectful without being cowed. Indeed, if you read the transcripts, you can find all the meat you want—about different concepts for mandates in health-care proposals, different concepts for the future in Iraq, different ways of dealing with federal budget deficits. Whenever they could, candidates steered the discussion back to policies and real-world problems, attacking their opponents mainly when goaded to do so by questioners. The candidates were anxious about staying ahead of their competitors; the moderators were anxious about generating enough excitement to get scenes from the debate onto the next day’s news. The candidates would be coming back for more debates; the moderators had only a chance or two to make a splash. So even Williams, one of the steadiest of them, acted in one of the ways that made this year’s primary debates different from anything American politics had seen before.

Unlike in any previous campaign of the TV-debate era, neither side in this year’s primaries had an incumbent president or vice president who could be coy about agreeing to debate with challengers. All of the candidates needed airtime at least as much as the news outlets and interest groups needed them. With no incumbents or favorites who could afford to be reluctant, the advantages were on the inviters’ side. The AFL-CIO got most of the candidates to show up. So did AARP; Univision, for a debate that was simulcast in Spanish; and Logo, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) network. And Daily Kos. Cable outlets covered those forums, and held their own debates too. Even though far fewer people watch primary debates—they typically draw 2 to 3 million viewers, versus the 60 million or more who watch general-election debates—any time on TV is a plus during primary season, when candidates are otherwise speaking to small groups in living rooms and shaking hands in diners.

Fred Thompson answers the question, “Who is the prime minister of Canada?”

Those cable outlets are themselves under pressure. The national audience is much more fractured and polarized than it was during the Dole-Clinton campaign. Being smaller, the cable shows and hosts must be noisier to be noticed. A cruel fact of media life, which I checked by reading coverage of the debates, is that no one will write a big story about a debate in which candidates explain their views on health insurance. In a Republican debate last fall in Dearborn, Michigan, Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, asked Fred Thompson to name the prime minister of Canada. Thompson got it—“Harper … Prime Minister Harper”—but, Matthews told me, “Sometimes you have the sense that someone doesn’t know, and it would have been a very big story in the Canadian press, up there on the border, if he didn’t.”

Dealing with surprise and displaying spot knowledge are advantages in politics, and knowing who is the elected leader of America’s largest trading partner should be a minimum qualification for the presidency. But the impulse Matthews had—normal answers won’t get coverage, a gaffe will—emerges through the boxed-set debate season as a powerful theme in the moderators’ performances, and is apparent even in Williams’s relatively restrained one. “The goal is to have clips on other people’s shows,” Todd Gitlin, of Columbia’s Journalism School, told me.

In January of this year, two Hillary Clinton staffers—Sidney Blumenthal, who had been a close counselor to Bill Clinton and was even closer to his wife; and a law student named Daniel Freifeld—produced a taxonomy of the Democratic debates to that point. Their internal memo began, in all caps:


“Gotcha” questions were the familiar attempt to find any difference between a candidate’s position today and what he or she had ever said before. “Puffs” were open-ended speculative questions: “What is your favorite Bible verse?” all of the Democrats were asked at the end of a debate in New Hampshire on September 26. “Governance” questions, of course, concerned how the trillion-dollar federal enterprise does its work (though the category excluded questions about the military’s performance in Iraq).

By the time I’d finished watching the debates, I had a similar impression to Blumenthal and Freifeld’s, but with a different organizational scheme. Here is my list of the Five Questions That Should Never Be Asked, with illustrations and reasons why they’re wrong:

1. The will you pledge tonight question, which is always about something no responsible politician could ever flat-out promise to do. For instance, a question to Barack Obama: “Will you pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?” Obama’s reply was the only realistic one: “It’s hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don’t know what contingency will be out there.” Hillary Clinton got the same question and gave a similar answer: “I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting. You know, we do not know, walking into the White House in January 2009, what we’re going to find.” The questioner looked as if these were witnesses evading a question. In fact, if they’d said anything different, they’d be indicating that they were too doctrinaire for the job. But that didn’t get Clinton off the hook. “Would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?” she was asked at another debate. She replied, “I intend to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb,” to which the follow-up was: “But you won’t pledge?” Then to Senator Joseph Biden: “Would you pledge to the American people that Iran would not build a nuclear bomb on your watch?” Biden’s reply: “I would pledge to keep us safe.” Taking a pledge would mean news for the show but would either handcuff the politician if elected or create a flip-flop trap later on.
2. The gotcha question, involving any change of policy. A challenge to former Senator John Edwards in a debate last September: “Well, Senator, I want to ask you this because in 2004 when you ran for president, you said we could not afford universal health care, it was not achievable, and it was not responsible. You’ve changed dramatically on this issue.” Edwards’s perfect response: “That’s true, and so has America.” Some changes are suspicious; others reflect a recognition of new facts. The gotcha questioner treats them all the same.
3. The loaded hypothetical question, which assumes factors that can’t be known. One addressed to Hillary Clinton: “If Israel concluded that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened Israel’s security, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran?” She replied, “I think that’s one of those hypotheticals that —” and, over the questioner’s interrupting “It’s not a hypothetical, Senator. It’s real life,” she went on to say “that is better not addressed at this time.” She, Biden, and Obama all challenged a similar hypothetical, straight out of 24, about whether they would torture a captive suspect who knew where a ticking bomb was stashed, saying that in reality torture didn’t work and the scenario was too pat. The most famous combination of the gotcha and the hypothetical was of course the question CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis as the very first in a debate 20 years ago: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
4. The raise your hand question, for reasons of intellectual vulgarity and personal rudeness; and
5. The lightning round, in which the candidates have 30 seconds to address a point. After aggressive questioning in one debate, the moderator said, “We’re going to take a break and come back with our lightning round — 30 seconds to answer each question.” Senator Chris Dodd shot back, “You never got to the real round.” The transcript then shows: “SENATOR CLINTON: (Chuckles.)”

Here we come to an awkward fact. The questioner in all the illustrations above, starting with the favorite verse of the Bible, was Tim Russert of NBC. (I called Russert’s office in Washington on a Tuesday to request an interview about his approach to debate questions. I was told that he was in Europe at the time and I should call back the following Monday. In between came the shocking news of his death.)

The generous personality that made Russert so popular, and the encyclopedic political knowledge that made him so influential, meant that he was imitated when he set a bad example as well as a good one. His questioning mode during the debates was mostly unfortunate. In two important, back-to-back Democratic debates last fall—in Hanover, New Hampshire, in September and Philadelphia in October—nearly every question he asked was from the categories above.

The candidates fought back, even when that involved defending their political rivals. A few months earlier, in a June debate in New Hampshire sponsored by CNN, all of the candidates had pushed back harder against the less magisterial Wolf Blitzer. When Blitzer asked for a yes/no show of hands on whether “the United States should use military force to stop the genocide in Darfur,” Clinton asked for details and then refused to answer. “We’re not going to engage in these hypotheticals,” she said. “I mean, one of the jobs of a president is being very reasoned in approaching these issues. And I don’t think it’s useful to be talking in these kind of abstract, hypothetical terms.” The transcript conveys the reaction after he asked for another show of hands and Biden, Edwards, and Clinton complained at once:

Wolf Blitzer asks the candidates to answer a question about killing Bin Laden with a show of hands

BLITZER: I want everybody to raise their hand and tell me: If you agree that if the U.S. had intelligence that could take out Osama bin Laden and kill him, even though some innocent civilians would die in the process, would you, as president, authorize such an operation? If you would, raise your hand.

BIDEN: It would depend on how many innocent civilians …

CLINTON: Yes, I mean, part of this is one of these hypotheticals, Wolf …

EDWARDS: There’s not information, not enough information.

CLINTON: … that is very difficult to answer in the abstract.

“At some point, the politicians are going to take a pledge against these take-a-pledge and raise-your-hand questions,” Chris Matthews told me. “It really does put them in a kind of junior position. It’s up to one of them to have the fiber to say, ‘No! I came here to provide information, not to perform at your beck and call.’” But when the show-of-hands question made its unwelcome debut in this season’s debates, in the inaugural Brian Williams session, it appeared in a form that was hard for the candidates to duck without seeming evasive—whether they’d ever owned a gun—and by the time they saw what was happening, the pattern was set and there was no going back.

George Stephanopoulos of ABC, who moderated two of the three Democratic debates held on a major network rather than on cable, told me that the reason the debates became so process-oriented was that the policy differences among the main contenders were so small. This was especially true, he said, in the much-criticized final debate of the primaries, in which he and Charles Gibson spent the first 45 minutes grilling Obama and Clinton on “electability” issues like Obama’s failure to wear an American-flag pin in his lapel, before turning to policy matters in the second half. “To the extent that they have relatively small differences over health-care policies, if either one becomes president those would all be subsumed” in negotiations with Congress, he said. “And as to whether originally they were for war in Iraq—that difference had been debated.” The only thing left to discuss and for the party to consider, according to Stephanopoulos, was “which was more electable in November—that was the heart of the issue.”

By that point, and about that debate, he was probably right. When I’d seen this final debate in real time, I’d been outraged by its harsh tone and belated attention to policy matters (including Gibson’s little lecture to the candidates on why capital-gains tax cuts always paid for themselves). When I saw its place in the series, I realized it was like a late episode of The Sopranos in which nearly everyone gets mowed down. It was violent and dehumanizing, but it was the culmination of a long process.

kucinich debate
CJ Gunther/Pool/EPA/Corbis

II. The Finalists

It is surprising how early the characters and plot lines for the debate series were set. In a sense, if you saw the first episode, with Brian Williams in South Carolina, you knew how the next 10 would go.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards were already the figures of consequence, with the others in a variety of supporting roles. Biden and his Senate colleague Dodd started that night down the course that would let each of them achieve something unusual: lose a political race in a big, lopsided way but enhance his personal and political standing. (Morris Udall, in his losing race for the Democratic nomination against Jimmy Carter, and Paul Tsongas and Bruce Babbitt against Bill Clinton, did something comparable.) Biden did so by seeming personable and funny. When given his first tough question in this first debate—whether he could curb his tendency to filibuster and exaggerate and could “have the discipline you would need on the world stage”—he made his winningest reply of the entire campaign: the single word “Yes.” Through the campaign, Dodd also moved into the nothing-to-lose jokey mode. In December, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards starchily said in an NPR radio debate, “My kids will not have toys coming from China” for Christmas, presumably because they were tainted. Dodd, who had moved his wife and young children to Iowa during the campaign, instantly and sarcastically topped him: “My toys are coming from Iowa. I’m buying Iowa toys. They’re going to eat Iowa food! Iowa toys!” It was the voice of someone about to get 1 percent of the vote but still sane enough to appreciate the absurdity of the endless primary campaign.

The pilot episode of the debate series established the other characters and their personalities, too: former Senator Mike Gravel and Representative Dennis Kucinich in the roles of rabble-rouser and truth-teller. Governor Bill Richardson as the insider making outsider-type dramatic claims—in that first debate, that if he were president, he would order every single U.S. soldier out of Iraq by the end of the year.

In the top tier, Edwards was from the start in a class by himself. He was crisper than Hillary Clinton in making his points, sticking to his message, and turning any question to the topic he wanted to discuss. He was better attuned than Barack Obama to the dramatic and emotional elements of presenting his case. Political debates are more like jury trials than like tests of logic. You win by making onlookers believe you—and therefore your argument. No one watching the debates could wonder how Edwards had won so many trials—and if this had been a jury case, it would have been settled early on. His one real weakness as a debater was overuse of “my daddy was a mill worker” to introduce any discussion of economic matters.

Then the contest came down to Clinton and Obama. Their paired evolution under questioning was fascinating because each changed—in different and revealing ways.

What never changed about Hillary Clinton, except in the 30 seconds about driver’s licenses that may have cost her so dearly, was her confidence and command of the facts. How did she prepare for the debates? I asked Sidney Blumenthal. “She prepared by doing her job,” he said. “These are issues that take years to master.” He had in mind her ability to discuss anything, from the hidden mandates in Obama’s “non-mandate” health plan (the ones requiring parents to insure their kids) to the history of dealings with Pakistan. No one would dream of asking her to name the prime minister of Canada, for fear of getting a response about her meetings with him and his three predecessors.

She could not be flapped and was never tongue-tied. When asked at the YouTube debate whether she was a “liberal,” she instantly gave a concise explanation of why she preferred “the word ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning, going back to the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century.” Thus she avoided a dreaded label without disowning the liberal heritage. When Stephanopoulos opened a debate that was held on his Sunday-morning show by asking her bluntly if Obama was up to the job, she parried with, “Well, George, I was going to say good morning,” getting a laugh, and then eased into, “You know, I’m running on my own qualifications and experience.” Tim Russert surprised her by reading a statement about when a president might authorize torture, asking her opinion, and then revealing, after she disagreed with it, that the author was her husband. “Well, he’s not standing here right now,” she said after absolutely no pause—meaning not that she was talking behind his back but that she would speak for herself and for no one else.

Hillary's "That hurts my feelings!" line and Obama's response

She also used surprising dramatic skills to educe Barack Obama’s very worst moment in the debates. This was on January 5, a Saturday night, just after Obama’s startling victory in the Iowa caucuses and just before the New Hampshire primary, which Clinton suddenly needed to win lest she be swept away. Scott Spradling, of WMUR-TV in the host city of Manchester, New Hampshire, asked Clinton about poll findings that people respected her but didn’t like her.

“Well … that hurts my feelings,” she said, with a sly smile that brought laughter from the crowd. “I’m sorry,” Spradling said, to applause. “I’m sorry!”

“But … I’ll try to go on!”—this in perfect, mock-melodramatic tone that again won a big appreciative response from the crowd. She turned to Obama and, while she didn’t quite pat him on the leg, gave a comparable, admiring “what a guy!” expression while saying: “He’s very likable! I agree with that.” A pause, and a little smile. “I don’t think I’m that bad.” It couldn’t have been done better. To me, it was more “humanizing” than her teary-eyed moment at a campaign stop 36hours later, because there was a playful element along with the hurt.

Obama looked flustered and blurted out his second-most-important line of the debates (we’ll get to the most important soon): “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” “Thank you so much!” she said, less in irritation than surprise, and after nervous laughter in the room she swung into the “real question,” which of course concerned “who is ready to be president on Day One.”

The problem for Clinton is that while she was nearly always at the top of her game, the game she was playing changed debate by debate. In one encounter, she hailed Obama as a comrade in their joint struggle against the Bush administration and the media. In the next, she regretfully but relentlessly pointed out the ways in which he wasn’t prepared to lead. At one of the last debates, in Cleveland, Brian Williams began the program by showing back-to-back tapes of her saying “I am honored to be here” with Obama and “Shame on you, Barack Obama.” She neatly reconciled the differences in two sentences: “Well, this is a contested campaign. And as I have said many times, I have a great deal of respect for Senator Obama, but we have differences.” But there was no way to talk around the jarring inconsistency of her two statements, especially the emotional contrast as it came through on the clips. In making different cases against Obama, she reinforced the strongest argument against herself: that she would say whatever she thought might work at the moment. Obama, with a few leaden exceptions in which he made a point of criticizing Clinton in a debate, seemed like the same character from one session to the next.

Al Gore's debate performance is mocked on Saturday Night Live

Hillary Clinton’s level of skill remained consistent; the ends toward which she used it varied. We have seen this pattern before, with Al Gore’s performances in his three debates against George W. Bush in 2000. In the first he was hyper-aggressive, with the instantly famous sighs that signaled his displeasure. In the second, after being mocked on Saturday Night Live for the first performance, he seemed almost sedated. By the third, he was Just Right, but the damage had been done. Bush was mediocre in all three, but consistent. By scoring logical points but confusing his identity, Gore hurt himself with the “jury.” So did Hillary Clinton.

Barack Obama’s evolution through the debates was just the opposite of Clinton’s. To an amazing degree, his message never changed; it matured. Knowing where Obama ended up by the late debates and primaries, it is easy to see what he was trying to say early on. In his often fuzzy answers in the early debates, sometimes so long in the buildup that he didn’t get to the main point before his time was cut off, Obama tried to do two things. He grappled with the question at hand—paying for his health-care proposals, dealing with Pakistan—while also moving to the “real question” about the need for a “new kind” of politics. The pairing of those answers was second nature by the last debates but not in the early rounds. In these he wasted time on hedges and footnotes, and did not manage to make his slight pause before answering seem like a sign of reflection, as it came to later on.

In response to a question about being "black enough," Obama jokes about catching a cab in Manhattan

Obama had noticeable spikes in his skill level. Ups: his most important line of the debates, which came in the last session before the Iowa caucuses. Carolyn Washburn, of The Des Moines Register, listed the former Clinton administration staffers advising him and asked how his foreign policy would be a “break from the past.” Hillary Clinton laughed in an unattractive way and said, in a comment not included in the transcript, “I want to hear that!” Obama’s answer is included: “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.” But the transcript doesn’t convey the gleam that immediately came into his eye as he conceived the reply, or the easy, just faintly aggressive smile with which he delivered it. This looked to me like the moment when he took command. There were more of these moments than most press coverage conveyed. One more illustration: in the YouTube debate, Anderson Cooper showed a video question asking Obama if he was “black enough.” He took a moment to grin, and said, “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan …” and, after the resulting cheers and laughter died down, set into “Let me go to the broader issue,” which was that “race permeates our society.”

And his downs? Whenever he talked about certain topics, including China, it seemed to me that he was reading from cue cards (“manipulating their currency,” etc.) rather than expressing policies he had thought through. The policies he has made his own—on race, Iraq, constitutional issues, family values—are subtly or dramatically different from the Democratic orthodoxy. Like most people, where he is less certain, he is more orthodox, as he showed after clinching the nomination with an unsubtly “pro-Israel” speech at the AIPAC convention in Washington.

Obama also showed a different sort of weakness in the debates, one that may be more significant during the general-election campaign and in his presidency if he wins. I noticed it more clearly after watching his three debates against Alan Keyes four years ago.

Keyes never had a chance in that election—he was a sacrificial fill-in for a Republican nominee who dropped out at the last minute during a divorce scandal—but he can hold his own in any debate with anyone. He was a successful schoolboy orator and debater who has all the skills of repartee Obama seemed to lack during the primary debates: he answers immediately, he talks very fast, he has a theory and an illustration to buttress every point. If we applied the conventional wisdom of this year’s debates, we would assume that he would talk his way around the more deliberate and thoughtful Obama.

But in 2004, he didn’t. Obama matched him in speed, aggressiveness, and swagger. Anyone who looks at these old debates will see it. The Obama of the presidential debates seemed to be enduring the sessions; the Obama who took on Alan Keyes seemed to be having fun. When attacking Keyes’s background and ideas, which he did frequently, he sounded wry rather than ponderous or angry. He didn’t seem to mind needling or attacking Keyes, or seem upset when Keyes attacked.

The Obama of 2004 didn’t spend much time on his now-familiar “new age of politics” theme (or need to). If asked about steel-industry jobs, tax rates, or the death penalty, he would address the specifics of those issues, without bothering to stress the need for Americans to bridge their partisan divides. Every now and then, he would make those larger points—after all, this was six weeks after his famous speech at the Democratic convention about moving past red states and blue states, to the United States of America. But they seemed incidental rather than central.

That previous Obama also sounded very little like a professor. With dismissive ease, he reeled off rebuttal points and identified errors as if he had been working in a courtroom rather than a classroom all his life. Keyes had said that Jesus Christ would not have voted for Obama. Obama was asked for his response: “Well, you know, my first reaction was, I actually wanted to find out who Mr. Keyes’s pollster was, because if I had the opportunity to talk to Jesus Christ, I’d be asking something much more important than this Senate race. I’d want to know whether I was going up, or down.”

All in all, Obama seemed in his element and having fun—two things no one has detected about his debate performances this past year. The ease with instant retorts he had shown against Keyes seemed to desert him against Edwards and Clinton, along with his unflappability under personal attack. “Senator Clinton, she doesn’t mind the direct confrontations at all,” Sidney Blumenthal said of her. Senator Obama, he definitely seemed to mind. Especially when it came to personal confrontation. In the very last debate, Obama managed to keep a neutral, thoughtful expression on his face as Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos delivered one “electability” question after another. Peggy Noonan, a political columnist who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, has referred to this as “Obama Thinking Face” and told me in an e-mail, “There is something delightful in the fact that you can see his thoughts developing as he speaks—that he’s thinking as he talks. It sounds small but most politicians seem distracted from their thoughts as they speak.” She added:

I remember always having the sense that Obama couldn’t land a punch. And then kind of respecting the fact that he wouldn’t land a punch. Hillary was flailing away like a midget boxer and he was holding her off with his long arm and then saying something boring about alternative energy sources.

Still, Obama’s most miserable scenes in any of the debates were cutaway shots when Hillary Clinton was criticizing his policies, his experience, or worst of all, his sincerity. When under personal attack herself, she usually wore a small, mocking grin or sometimes shook her head—No, no, that’s wrong. He tended to look not thoughtful but pained or stricken. Attack brought out the one great line about “looking forward to you advising me,” but many more moments of seeming to be thrown off his stride.

What had changed since 2004? Was it that Keyes, for all his virtuosity, was never a serious contender, so Obama had nothing to lose? Was it the move to the national stage? The greater range of issues outside his direct expertise? That he was now “the” black candidate in the race, with attendant dangers of seeming too aggressive or angry, which didn’t matter before, since Keyes is black too? The nature of national-level questioning, which holds so many more gotcha traps than the state debates did?

For now, we can’t be sure. But his recent show of discomfort with direct confrontation indicates a clear path for John McCain.

III. This Fall

John McCain is not a good debater, not even by comparison with George W. Bush. Having been in Washington for decades, he knows many issues in detail. Having been in Washington for decades, he often overexplains those details, as Bob Dole did against Bill Clinton in 1996. The exception is the whole field of economics, where through most of the Republican debates, he skated by with allusions to the advisers he would consult.

Worse, he will look and sound old and weak next to Obama. Ronald Reagan was about McCain’s current age when he ran for reelection against Walter Mondale, but Reagan looked 10 years younger than McCain does now. Obama is 10 years younger than Mondale was and looks younger still. McCain must hope that he can apply a version of Reagan’s line about his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.” But lacking Reagan’s outward haleness, he risks coming across like Dole against Clinton—or, more ominously, his fellow ex-POW James Bond Stockdale, who turned in a notoriously lost- and incoherent-sounding performance against Al Gore and Dan Quayle (!) in the 1992 vice-presidential debates.

McCain also runs the risk of being the first Republican since Dole to go into the debates trailing in the national polls. This would allow Obama to do what George W. Bush did four years ago: nurse a lead and simply try to avoid mistakes. He’s had more practice with debates than McCain, and more recently.

In these circumstances, McCain’s tactics against Obama are obvious. He will ask for as many debates as he can, starting with informal town halls before either he or Obama is officially nominated. The informal setting shows him off to his best advantage, with the affable bantering that has long made him a favorite with the press. Whoever is behind wants more debates.

He will play the expectations game as hard as he can, knowing that’s how the press will keep score. Objectively, George W.Bush did poorly against both Gore and Kerry. But in each case, he did “better than expected,” and so, if anything, was helped by the debates. In every talk with reporters, the Republican campaign team will marvel at Obama’s gifts in rhetoric. Of course he’ll do well in debates; that goes along with being “all talk.”

Once he gets on the stage, McCain will try to remind Obama of Hillary Clinton—that is, of someone he must take seriously, someone who is willing to challenge him and even insult him to his face. Obama “is vain about his idealism and ‘nobility,’” a staff member for one of Obama’s Democratic opponents (not Clinton) told me on the phone. “He is thin-skinned about having his motives and competence questioned, so that’s what you do.” Grizzled pols like Hillary Clinton or her husband would laugh off such an attempt; Obama may still be innocent enough to be shaken by it. McCain made many dismissive references to Obama after Obama became the presumptive nominee. The easy next step is to do so while looking at him.

For Obama the key is: look at John McCain, and see Alan Keyes.

obama hillary clinton debate
Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

IV. The Rhetorical Presidency

Rhetoric is only part of a president’s power, but it’s an important part. Building public enthusiasm for your efforts helps overcome legislative and administrative barriers, as in their different ways Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton showed. Declaring a clear position makes a difference even within an administration. Appointees of the Reagan administration spent less time arguing about the president’s goals and intentions than staffers in some other eras, because Reagan’s speeches were so often designed to say just what the intentions were. I worked for two years as Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter. Many issues had to be fought out at every level of the administration and finally resolved in speeches, in part because he was less comfortable than Reagan in presenting a big, clear, simple summary of his goals.

What if Obama wins? We won’t see him in debates again, or at least not until 2012. Answering questions at a presidential press conference is altogether different from handling them in a debate. The president controls every aspect: he talks as long as he wants; he can look daggers at any questioner who asks him to raise his hand or demands a yes/no answer, or can simply seem amused and incredulous. We’d see Obama on his chosen terrain, as a formal speaker. Everyone knows he is a “good” speaker. But what exactly would that mean for him as president?

In parallel with the debates this year, we have of course seen Obama the formal orator. His skill as a speaker has gotten unusual attention, in part because of the mediocrity of most rhetoric in this era. Hillary Clinton is a skillful debater but at best a workmanlike long-form speaker. The courtroom vibrancy of John Edwards’s stump speeches does not translate as well to formal policy speeches. John McCain’s strength is the one-on-one interview or informal town-hall meeting. His voice, bearing, and expressive range don’t work as well at a lectern.

Obama has the buzz as this year’s great orator—but in itself, that means less than it seems. Few will believe it now, but Jimmy Carter worked audiences like a master as his outsider campaign gathered steam in 1976. Even partially successful candidates—Teddy Kennedy, Mario Cuomo—can do so. My earliest firsthand political memory is of a rally for Barry Goldwater in Dodger Stadium in 1964; 50,000 people were there, and 100,000 eyes were on him the entire time. I even saw Richard Nixon hold a crowd entranced in 1968.

One reason to argue that Obama would be a more successful speaker than, say, Nixon is the way he has already used his eloquence as a political tool. Repeatedly during this campaign, he has gotten himself out of serious political or policy problems with the Big Formal Speech. The most celebrated instance was of course his speech about race relations, delivered at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, during the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which seriously imperiled his candidacy. Garry Wills, whose studies of presidential rhetoric range from Lincoln at Gettysburg to Nixon Agonistes, compared it in The New York Review of Books to Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech during his run for the presidency in 1860. Each candidate, Wills pointed out, was defending himself against a damaging charge—in Lincoln’s case, that he sympathized with the violent abolitionist John Brown. Each answered the charge but did much more, since both speeches “forged a moral position that rose above the occasions for their speaking.”

Obama’s speeches have been additionally unusual in having a life beyond the moment in which they are given. It’s a rarer achievement than it seems. Bill Clinton could predictably mesmerize those who actually watched and heard him speak. Anyone who merely read the transcript would wonder what all the excitement was about. Garry Wills quoted to me, via e-mail, Cicero’s maxim “The effect is in the affect.” Obama has mastered the performance part and more, because his major speeches are written to be read, rather than just watched and heard. They explain the way he thinks and the values with which he would approach problems as they presented themselves. Obama is the first major candidate since, oddly, Jimmy Carter who could plausibly have had a career as a writer. (Carter’s pre-presidential memoir, Why Not the Best?, was more obviously a campaign document than Obama’s Dreams From My Father, written when he was in his 30s. But both make for compelling reading, and Carter’s post-presidential books, except for his starchy formal memoir of the White House, have been very good.)

When politicians do try to lay out a new thought or policy, they tend to do so from the safety of incumbency, rather than as part of a campaign. For instance: when Carter ran for office, he talked about the importance of human rights around the world. But not until six months into his presidency, in a commencement speech at Notre Dame, did he explain in the fullest sense how the United States could balance an emphasis on human rights with awareness of its practical interests and obligations. It is a speech that survives re-reading 30 years later. (I am biased, having been involved, but Jerome Doolittle was the main writer.) Nothing from his campaign does so. I expect some of the addresses Obama has already given will, whether he is elected or not.

As Hillary Clinton noted at the sourest points of the primary battles, and as John McCain will hammer home at every chance until Election Day, “mere words” are not the same as leadership or effectiveness. The right words can obviously make a huge difference. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan all magnified their power, especially at the start of their administrations, through their ability to explain what they were trying to do. “The only thing we have to fear …,” “Ask not …,” “Tear down this wall”—such phrases changed people’s minds and shaped events.

Rhetoric can distort expectations and create traps, as many critics of British Prime Minister Tony Blair were noting by the end of his tenure. In his book The Kennedy Promise, the British journalist Henry Fairlie made a similar point about John Kennedy. The grandiosity of promises to “pay any price” and “bear any burden,” Fairlie contended, fed a mood of “national peril” and set the conditions for engagement in Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson, as he watched the League of Nations falter, and George W. Bush, who began his second term with a sweeping Wilsonian promise of “the expansion of freedom in all the world,” also suffered from the mismatch between elevated rhetoric and heartbreaking reality. The greatest speech of Bush’s career—his address to a Joint Session of Congress days after the 9/11 attacks—is now a source of heartbreak on its own, since the potential for rousing America to address its domestic and international vulnerabilities degenerated into the all-consuming effort to attack Iraq.

The question about Obama is: If he is elected, where might such uplifting words lead? Of course we won’t know unless we see. But the rhetorical strategies of two of his predecessors provide a clue. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both came into office with zillion-point action plans for the steps they would take, plans they had announced during their campaigns. Reagan’s came largely from the Heritage Foundation; Clinton’s, from decades of what his associates called “The Conversation” about public problems and their likely solutions. George W. Bush arrived with some items in mind—and after 9/11 adopted a long-standing action plan for dealing with Saddam Hussein and reasserting presidential power.

Based on his rhetoric, Barack Obama would arrive not because of support for his list of programs, although he has offered them, but because of support for his cast of mind. His speeches and debate answers show us how he thinks, much more than they reveal exactly the policies he would advance for, say, improving the economy, dealing with the Chinese (where his proposals have often seemed surprisingly crude and ill-informed), or coping with crime or climate change. Every administration turns on the president’s cast of mind: Bill Clinton’s startling gifts of intelligence and even more startling lack of self-discipline; George W. Bush’s toxic combination of decisiveness and lack of curiosity; Ronald Reagan’s sunniness and lack of interest in detail. But for some presidents, cast of mind is a central feature—the person, much more than the plan, represents the promise of the presidency. Obama is one of these.

I am very sensitive to the perils of this approach because the man I worked for, Jimmy Carter, was elected in large part as a national savior—a good, religious, “never lie to you” president to fill the moral void created by Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam. Charles Peters, of The Washington Monthly, once compared Carter to the figurehead leader of Vichy France, Marshal Pétain. Each man, in this view, offered to save the nation through his own personal qualities. In Carter’s case, those turned out to be no match for the disasters of the late ’70s. For instance: in the spring of 1980, as Carter ran for reelection, the prime interest rate was 20 percent.

The argument that Obama would be another Pétain-like Carter, offering his noble qualities only to be overwhelmed by ignoble reality, is the deepest fear about him, or at least the one that most resonates with me. The greatest hope is that before his brief time in the U.S. Senate, he absorbed more practical skills and sensibilities than Carter did in Georgia. Michael Janeway, who as dean of the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern knew the Chicago establishment figures who nurtured Obama’s rise in the 1990s, speaks of “the Chicago way”—“getting all the parties together and taking responsibility for finding a solution.” Under the Chicago way, the fact that Obama’s most important speeches are short on eight-point action plans is a strength rather than a weakness: it’s a sign that serious business will be done.

Peggy Noonan compared this approach to that of the Kennedy administration. “JFK and his people came into the White House,” she said in an e-mail, “with a faith they could be practical, pragmatic, worldly, that with these attributes they could manage what came over history’s transom. I see Obama as like this: things will come over the transom and he’ll approach them as a thoughtful sophisticate. He’ll think.”

For better and worse, if Obama wins, a thinking president is what we’ll have.

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