Much has been made of the reaction to President Obama’s debate performance by his own side. Like many conservatives, I was not greatly surprised by the performance. Few men, in my opinion, have been so ill-prepared for the office of the presidency, so it’s no shock to find him unprepared for a debate. Chances are he’ll do better next time, having taken his opponent’s measure and undergone some pointed, with-all-due-respect-Mr-President coaching from his team. But whether he wins back the full confidence of his pep squad remains to be seen. I doubt it.
What struck me most in the immediate post-debate reax was that these people were hurt. Angry, yes, but angry because they were hurt. They’ve had so much invested in the man for the last four years—not just political capital but emotional capital. Obama sent that thrill up Chris Matthews’ leg and thunderbolts of energy through chanting crowds. Obama was the great liberal hope who would set the world right after the weapon of mass destruction known as George W. Bush. Obama would slay the dragon of conservatism forever, or at least emasculate it to a puny, sniveling worm. Some of them went a little nuts.
And Obama let them down.
True, he’s disappointed his fans before now, with minor offenses like “fetishizing bipartisanship” and trying to be too “pragmatic.” But the level of naked anguish displayed on debate night suggests a wound beyond healing. If he recovers some of the old magic by Round Two on Oct. 16, the pundits will jump back in the tank, but with a warier eye for weaknesses. If a likelier candidate were to appear on the horizon, they might feel a little easier if Obama lost—he could take one for the team while they audition new messiahs. The problem is that the horizon looks pretty dark right now. The shiniest stars in the Democrat firmament are either over the hill or dead.
There’s a lesson for Republicans here: “Put not your trust in princes, [or] in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3). No man could carry the burden of expectation thrust upon Barack Obama (though in fairness, he asked for it)—not even Saint Ronald. If Mitt Romney wins, he will disappoint. If he wins with a Republican Congress thrown in, he will still disappoint. The world is too broken to fix, and individual men and women are more broken than they think. Slapping high-fives after a good debate feels great, but let’s keep our feet on the ground.