It's hard to say which is more cringe-worthy: President Barack Obama's debate performance last week or his efforts to control the damage by poking fun at himself. In Los Angeles on Sunday night, Obama recognized Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry as "incredible professionals" who "perform flawlessly night after night." Then he added, "I can't always say the same."
Later that night, he spoke of taking his wife out the night before for a late celebration of their wedding anniversary, postponed because the debate fell on the actual anniversary date. "There was some speculation as to whether (the anniversary) had an impact on my performance," he said.
That could have been a reference to the "Saturday Night Live" sketch that had depicted a distracted and henpecked Obama more worried about buying a gift for his wife than debating Mitt Romney. Is it possible the president and first lady returned home from their delayed anniversary dinner Saturday, turned on the TV and saw this bit of comedy? Is it possible that Michelle then put on her footy pajamas and went to bed in the guest room?
There's a history of presidents losing debates to fresher-faced challengers. Many even go on to win the election, such as Ronald Reagan, who had his posterior handed to him by Walter Mondale in 1984, and George W. Bush, who was deemed the loser in a debate with John Kerry in 2004 and kept his job anyway.
But dismal numbers this week, particularly those from the Pew Research Center showing that Obama handed Romney 12 points virtually overnight among likely voters, suggests that Obama's job is far from secure.
That could change, of course. At the next presidential debate on Tuesday, the president could morph into the Incredible Hulk. But for now, the president's every move is spotlighted by the sallow glow of a particular kind of failure.
It's not the broad-spectrum failure that goes along with not being able to pass legislation or jump-start the economy into full-speed growth. Nor is it the personal, localized failure associated with not being able to quit smoking or being a terrible bowler.
No, this is a special breed of failure, involving not just embarrassment but humiliation, a failure in which there is no one to blame but yourself because you're the one who put yourself on that stage. It's the failure that comes from bombing.
The president bombed. Like a stand-up comic whose audience heckles him off the stage midroutine, he bombed big time. Given his pedantic speaking style, his downward gaze and his utter lack of enthusiasm, he might as well have tapped the mic and asked the signature bombing question: "Is this on?" Given the excoriating tweets, the clucking commentators, the gob-smacked Democrats and the gloating Republicans, he might as well have done the comedian-like thing and retreated to the nearest dive bar to drown himself in Wild Turkey while wondering whether it's too late to go to law school (an especially sad scenario given that the president already went to law school).
For all his flaws and mistakes, Obama has managed to live his life with very few screw-ups, at least by political standards. He appears to be almost maddeningly free of personal scandals. His risk-averse, highly calculated approach to decision-making has given him a reputation for playing it safe rather than making a splash.
But consider this: The fact the president's performance wasn't merely mediocre but truly, deeply bad could actually work in his favor. That's because there's something beautiful, even liberating, about bombing. It's a rite of passage, a painful, character-building learning experience. There is no successful comic who hasn't bombed. There is no musician who hasn't tried out a new song, only to watch half the audience get up to go to the bathroom. To err is human, to bomb is to feel superhuman — when you make a comeback.
So maybe it's time for Obama supporters to stop whining and learn to love this particular bomb. Though if he falls flat again, even a Hulk costume might not be a bad idea.
Los Angeles Times
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.