At the Debate, Obama Does Not Soar

012208 debate web At the Debate, Obama Does Not SoarThe paradox that is Barack Obama came into sharp, almost painful, focus tonight: He is, at once, one of the best television candidates in political history and one of the more underwhelming.

Obama’s political star was launched when he delivered a dazzling address on national television at his party’s convention in 2004. His oratory was mesmerizing, his message inspiring, and his appearance and manner made him an instantly likable figure to millions of Americans. That Obama—Big Speech Obama—is tailor-made for television.

But then there’s Debate Obama, a hesitant, stuttering, easily rattled and mostly unsmiling public performer who litters his platitudes and “uh’s” and misses countless opportunities to throw his opponents’ taunts back in their faces. Debate Obama unwittingly affirms Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that he lacks the seasoning to withstand the scrutiny of a fall campaign and leaves those who have only seen Big Speech Obama wondering, “Is this really the same guy?”

The shortcomings of Debate Obama were once again on display tonight in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They aren’t easily visible in transcripts and print news summaries, but anyone watching the proceedings on television—and there were several million such people tuning in on CNN—could see them, particularly when Obama’s two rivals directly engaged him.

His extended exchange with Hillary Clinton early on, in which he ridiculed her for sitting on the Wal-Mart corporate board and she labeled him a slumlord coddler, vividly illustrated Obama’s weaknesses in debate settings.

Obama instigated the back-and-forth by arguing—very correctly—that Hillary and Bill Clinton have relied on gross distortions and factually inaccurate assertions to attack him in recent weeks. He made his case haltingly, tripping over some of his words. He mentioned some of the areas where the Clintons have not played fair—for instance, Obama’s record on the Iraq war—but the packaging was sloppy. He jumped around from one thought to the next, seemingly intimidated by either the idea of going on the offensive or the challenge of confronting Hillary, who stood a few feet away staring directly at him, to her face. He wrapped up his indictment with a platitude.

“I think that part of what the people are look for right now is somebody who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we see in Washington,” Obama said.

In fighting back, Hillary was hardly warm, but she was forceful, confident and utterly unflappable, unwilling to cede an inch and ready with a snappy reply to each of Obama‘s charges. Her presentation gave casual viewers the distinct impression that, when it comes to her campaign’s attacks on Obama’s record, there’s a there there—even when there really isn’t.

She rapidly reeled off, for instance, a seemingly thorough accounting of Obama’s history on Iraq, conceding up front that “we are not in any way saying that you didn’t oppose the war. You did. You gave a great speech in 2002 saying you opposed the war in Iraq.” But then, she said, that speech was removed from Obama’s web site in 2003, and that in 2004 he was proclaiming “that he agreed with President Bush in his prosecution of the war” and that over and over as a senator he’s voted to fund the war.

She did the same thing on the subject of Obama’s 130 “present” votes in the Illinois state Senate, suggesting that he was so afraid of taking a position that he refused to take a stand on sex offender legislation.

“Senator Obama,” Hillary said at one point, “it is very difficult to have a debate with you because you never take responsibility for any vote.”

You can imagine Big Speech Obama having a field day in this situation. Was Hillary Clinton, the same woman who has refused to apologize for helping to send the nation into a disastrous war, actually accusing someone else of not being straight about his voting record?

But he squandered opening after opening to defuse her attacks and to turn the tables on her. When the subject of his present votes in the state legislature came up, he could have shamed Hillary for using them in an inflammatory and deceptive mailer to women in New Hampshire that suggested Obama had voted against abortion rights in Illinois—even though Illinois pro-choice leaders in Illinois had asked him to vote present every single time. Instead, he stammered his way through a confused explanation of his rationale on the sex-offender legislation, a response that even prompted John Edwards to join Hillary in piling on Obama.

Edwards began lecturing Obama about the tough votes he himself had to cast as a senator from North Carolina and asked, rhetorically, what would have happened if he’d just decided to stay home as a senator whenever there had been a tough vote.

Obama could have smiled and told Edwards that if he’d done that, we might not be in a war right now, since Edwards—like Hillary—voted for the Iraq war in 2002. Instead: More stammering.

It’s probably unfair to expect Big Speech Obama to show up in debates. Delivering prepared remarks from a podium is much different from fielding questions and charges from a media panel and your reporters. But the incongruity between Big Speech Obama and Debate Obama is nonetheless harmful to Obama’s campaign—especially since the majority of voters from this point forward will learn about the candidates through televised debates, and not by attending speeches.