After President Reagan’s listless performance in the first presidential debate of 1984 raised speculation that he was too old for the job, the Gipper took command in the second debate. Of his opponent Walter Mondale, Reagan famously said that he wouldn’t try to score political points by exploiting his opponent’s youth and inexperience.
Perhaps Barack Obama can likewise reassert himself in Tuesday evening’s town hall in Long Island. But his problem is this: In Denver he didn’t just lose a debate—he lost the carefully cultivated illusion of a larger-than-life figure who was Lincoln and FDR and Moses all wrapped in one
Mostly this image was the making of his own immodesty, starting the night he clinched the 2008 Democratic nomination. Mr. Obama might have simply declared victory and congratulated Hillary Clinton on a valiant fight. Instead it became the backdrop for one of his more infamous egoisms. History, he said, would look back at his victory as the moment “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
This was no aberration. A man who interviewed for a job on the campaign was told by Mr. Obama: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Everything about his campaign fed that idea. The Styrofoam Greek columns at the Democratic convention when he was nominated. The faux presidential seal with its own Latin motto. And before the campaign, the two books he authored about—himself.
The press, far from exhibiting any skepticism about this immodesty, bowed before it. Leave aside the NBC reporter who conceded it was hard to remain objective in the face of all the “infectious” energy emanating from Mr. Obama’s quest for the White House. Or the New York Times commentator who knew Mr. Obama was meant to be president by the crease in his pants leg. Or the historian who told radio host Don Imus that Mr. Obama’s IQ was “off the charts”—but when asked what it was could only answer that he was probably “the smartest guy ever to become president.”
An editor at Politico (and veteran of the Washington Post) put it this way: “I have witnessed the phenomenon several times. Some reporters need to go through detox, to cure their swooning over Obama’s political skill.”
None of this abated after Mr. Obama was elected. He arrived in Washington for his inauguration in a train to provoke comparisons to Lincoln. Soon he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for—well, it’s still not exactly clear what he was awarded it for. He affected unworthiness, but it is more telling that he didn’t decline it.
In short, Mr. Obama was the man who declared that he would change the thinking of the Muslim world by the mere fact of his election, restore science to its rightful place, and win what he called the “necessary war” in Afghanistan.
And then came this month’s debate in Denver.
That night, the American people watched “the smartest guy in the room” struggle to put together a simple declarative sentence, and then ask the moderator to move onto another topic after Mitt Romney had given a strong statement about jobs and growth and tax revenues.
Some 67 million Americans were watching on TV. What they saw was the scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s dog pulls back the curtain to reveal there is no wizard at all, just a man from the Midwest who pumped himself up into something far beyond his mortal self—and got the whole of Oz to believe it.
Yes, we had earlier glimpses that Mr. Obama might not be all he has pretended. We saw how quickly he becomes irritated whenever an interviewer departs from the full fawn, such as when a Dallas TV reporter corrected him about his margin of defeat in Texas in the last presidential election. We’ve even seen the occasional lampoon, such as the 2008 Saturday Night Live skit satirizing how journalists who went hard on Hillary Clinton during Democratic debates served up softballs to Mr. Obama
These, however, were only moments. They were nothing like the 90 minutes of presidential incoherence in Denver and the outrage of liberals who now hail Joe Biden for his savvy—not to mention the days of pointed, sustained Obama ridicule on late-night TV that, for the first time, laughed at the president rather than with him.
In the two remaining debates, Mr. Obama will surely be more assertive, more competitive, and more engaged than he was in round one. But this time the curtain has been pulled back and the aura is gone. That means Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent—for the first time in two presidential contests—will finally be contesting a mere mortal, not a wizard of his own Oz.