Friday, October 5, 2012

Obama's debate performance

Obama partisans were disappointed in his debate performance. As many commentators noted, he appeared to be irritated from the get-go, as if he did not want to be at the debate at all. Perhaps his somewhat off-key opening statement, addressed directly to Michelle, “And so I just want to wish, sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million,” reflected just this thought. "Why I am here debating Romney when I could be celebrating my anniversary with Michelle?"

It was evident as well that Obama lacked mental flexibility. When arguing for tax fairness, Obama claimed that companies get tax breaks when they go overseas. Romney responded, "Look I have been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you're talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant." Had he been quick, Obama could have referenced Romney's own creative accountants who helped him pay only 13% of his income as tax. In other words he could have said something like, "Look who’s talking. I should contact your accountant!"  Of course, Obama has the innate speed of mind to see and make this connection. But his irritability suppressed his flexibility. 

Perhaps only Obama and his close advisers understand why he was irritable, and why he let this stance get in the way of his performance. What is interesting here is the disjunction between the work, thinking and time that went into Obama's preparation, surely every possible argument was anticipated, and a source of failure, his mood, which could not be anticipated. It was a reminder of the gap between our conscious purposes, in this case to win the debate, and our emotional stance. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal's aphorism, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing," expresses just this idea.

Performance coaches are of course very familiar with this situation. When they coach an athlete who is clutching, they know that the athlete's emotional stance toward his or her performance is undermining it. For example, the athlete may have become a perfectionist, may feel that failure, after so much success, is shameful, or that succeeding may stimulate the envy of a mentor or peer. However, most coaches don't put their clients "on the couch" to uncover such out-of-awareness feelings. Instead, they help the athlete develop an attitude of overall disinterest in consequences, for example, "what will happen if I fail," and focus solely on the action itself, that is, the arc and follow through of a golf swing, a pitch, or a jump shot.  As a result, the athlete learns to focus on the "here and now" of her performance and to abandon the "there and then” of its results. In fact, these are the conditions under which expert performers often achieve what the psychologist, Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi, calls the state of "flow." This may be one reason Romney demonstrated more resilience. He had nothing to lose. 

There are different techniques for achieving such a stance, for example, by meditating or breathing properly. There are also methods for helping any performer distance himself emotionally from his own performance. For example, coaches who help financial traders improve their game, encourage them to keep a diary of their decisions. The trader becomes a student of his performance, thereby objectifying it.

This perspective on expert performance helps us understand why people who may face considerable emotional conflicts in their everyday lives may nonetheless become skilled performers whether as surgeons, musicians or engineers. Their skill helps them develop a persona that displaces, for the moment, the self that is in conflict with the world. Indeed, it is a common experience that skilled performance helps such people stay sane --it connects them to others in a zone free of emotional conflict-- and why they grow anxious when they are not working. Long ago, the famous psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi, noted that some of his patients suffered from what he called "Sunday neurosis." They became symptomatic on their days off. 

The problem of course is that neither Obama nor Romney is a professional debater. Neither one can commit himself to the level of exercise and attention to debating that a professional in another field achieves in honing her performance. This makes them  both more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of their emotional stance toward a debate. They lack the protection that repeated skilled performances could give them. This is why the debates, despite all their limitations, remain revealing.

The emotional stance a person brings to a performance is often less about character, through sometimes it can be, and more about how he is emotionally related to the situation he is in. In this way of thinking we would not say that Obama was or is irritable, but rather he was in a relationship of irritation to his immediate situation. In the psychoanalytic way of thinking, a person’s relatedness to a situation sets the context for his decisions and actions within the situation. It is like the relationship between climate and weather. The climate establishes the range of possible “weathers.” In this sense, in the absence of repeated performance, the stance trumps the skill. Thinking psychoanalytically, we would say that Obama developed an image of his relationship to the debate, as represented by his opponent, the press, his supporters and the medium of television, which stimulated feelings of irritation. For example, and this is just speculation, he may have experienced the out-of -awareness thought that debating Romney was wasting his time.

The merit of such a framing is that we don’t ask the performer, the client, the coachee, or even Obama, to explore his character. Rather we ask him to try to tune into his out-of-awareness thoughts and feelings --the heart’s reasons—that are shaping his immediate relationship to the situation he is about to face. His debating proxies, or his policy experts cannot possibly help him do this. He has to rely on his closest advisers, and they need the courage to risk “stirring him up” just when he is trying settle in.


  1. There is something in what you say about Obama being somewhat absent from the situation, I believe. A debate-game could be compared to tennis, or boxing, where 2 opponents face one another directly. In such a game, one must be aware of the opponent's moves. In my observation, it seemed to me that Romney paid careful attention to Obama when Obama was talking, presumably thinking about what he was saying. He also had his moves well rehearsed, and so was able to refer to Obama's statements in his response (e.g. "The Cleveland Clinic ..." where he turned Obama's example around.)

    Obama looked at the audience, including the TV audience more than Romney. Perhaps he'd been advised to do that? All in all, he missed several opportunities to parry Romney's blows. What was he thinking? Or not thinking?

    Being very speculative, was Obama thinking about not coming across as professorial? To "not" think something is to think it, for the unconscious. Did you hear about the boy who was told he could find the treasure at the bottom of the tree provided he did not think of a green monkey while digging for it?

  2. Larry,
    A couple of expressions of another view:

    According to this other view, Obama was in over his head just the way he has been for his whole presidency, perhaps even his whole life. It is just that now, for the first time, this is becoming directly visible.

    On this view, his poor performance was not due to his emotions; his emotions were the registration of his inability to give a creditable performance.

    If I may elaborate, Obama, from what I understand, did not prepare much for the debate. He didn't feel he needed to. Partly because his own brilliance was self-evident to him, but also partly because his narcissism, within an anti-Oedipal frame, did not give him the possibility of understanding that someone could disagree with him with intelligence and in good faith. So Romney must be evil and/ or stupid. What need to seriously consider his point of view?

    Notice that the rejoinders Obama supposedly missed out on, and which he is being encouraged to make next time, are directed at Romney's character, not at his case. But Romney made millions of dollars assessing reality, not finding comic-book level caricatures of his opponents and then letting them form his idea of reality. I doubt he will be able to put that aside.
    His close advisers will not be able to help him with this, since they are taken up with it as much as he is. But if he treats this next round as if it were a venue for playing the dozens, not only will Romney wipe the floor with him by marshalling arguments, but he will leave himself with nothing to offer but more insults, which will be easily seen as not responsive. Horrible position to be in during a debate.

    So I've got my money on Romney for the next round. Any takers for the Biden-Ryan match?

    It certainly is good television, though.


  3. Larry another interesting post, thankyou. There is however a yin to your yang. Irritation can also sometimes empower a speaker. I wonder what the difference is? While you have no reason to follow the political debate in Australia, our PM's recent performance in parliament was almost certainly fueled and I would contend, empowered, by her growing irritation with the leader of the opposition. It came many days after some particularly stupid and vitriolic comments from the opposition leader and his wider circle of influencers. In his question, he used the same form of words that have been used in those earlier attacks. I invite you to take a look at the PM's 'take no prisoners' speech -

    1. Interesting comparison. There is nothing wrong about irritation per se. It is relevant only insofar as it degraded Obama's performance. This would be particularly true if his irritation came from the feeling that Romney was not a worthy opponent.