When You’ve Spent 3 Years Disdaining Criticism

In my opinion, the story of the debate last night was how well each man channeled the almost palpable disdain he harbored for his opponent. Mitt Romney had the demeanor of someone who couldn’t stand that an unaccomplished black man failed to accord his business and governmental success due respect (John McCain struggled with something similar). He channeled that disdain into amped Howdy Doody smiles that, while just as fake as everything else from Mitt, were at least more accessible.

Obama had the same demeanor we’ve seen for years from him when he gets exasperated that critics don’t pay due attention to the catastrophe he inherited from Bush. Rather than listening to legitimate criticisms–at times, even from the right–Obama just purses his lips to hide his anger about the criticism and sends out an aide to make accusations about the Professional Left. Last night, Obama’s anger at Mitt’s criticisms and lies was channeled into looking down, occasionally forcing a smile out of those pursed lips, though only on a few occasions with enough mockery to successfully undercut what Mitt was saying.

I’m not suggesting that, last night, Obama should have affected listening to Mitt’s lies as effective criticism (though I think he could have very effectively asked Mitt a number of pointed questions as a way to undercut the lies without appearing defensive). But I do think Obama’s demeanor last night is something he has practiced often over the last 3 years.

I will say this for Obama: Some portion of his time in the 4 hours before the debate must have been spent not on debate prep, but in briefings on the escalating tensions between Turkey and Syria, which (particularly given that Turkey is a NATO member) could spiral out of control quickly. I wouldn’t blame him if he was distracted by what could be a really dangerous incident, even putting the election aside.

All that said, Obama needs to find a way to engage enough with Mitt’s criticisms and lies to debunk them with grace. Disdain alone won’t do it.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

26 replies
  1. Roman Berry says:

    I’m really left cold by all the ‘Romney’s lies’ stuff that is coming close to a meme on Demcoratic leaning sites lately. It’s not that Romney is being truthful, it’s that all the attention gets focused on Romney while Obama, at least from the faithful (though certainly not necessarily here at EmptyWheel) gets a pass. It’s a “Look over there! Look over there!” kind of blindness to what for me is undeniable Democratic awfulness. A distraction. A red herring even.

    Four years on I’m of the opinion that there is great cognitive dissonance among many Obama supporters. Four years on it is apparent that the 2008 Obama campaign from the primaries on was really just marketing, and dishonest (or at least misleading) marketing at that. The pledges to revisit FISA, to reopen NAFTA, to hold Wall Street to account, not to mention Obama’s stated positions on everything from indefinite detention to surveillance to unilateral military attacks without congressional authorization to…well…check Charlie Savage’s October 2007 Obama Q&A and tell me that wasn’t a campaign built on half truths and deception wrapped in pleasant sounding rhetoric.

    Obama is no liberal. For my money he isn’t even a Democrat. Heck, for my money the Democratic Party isn’t even really the Democratic Party, at least not the Democratic Party of the New Deal that looks out for the poor and the working class in anything but name only.

    The post-debate impressions over at newrackblog contained what I think is an insightful comment/observation:

    I think the fundamental problem is that Obama doesn’t really disagree with Romney on all that much — from “Race to the Top,” to Dodd-Frank, to Simpson-Bowles, to deficit reduction ueber alles, to — as he pointed out himself — health care reform. And so he magnifies the differences there are. And then he has no terribly persuasive, simple rejoinder when Romney is able to wriggle free of Obama’s judgments by disputing the premise in the case of health care, or to “even” out-populist Obama by relabeling as “too big to fail” the SIFI (systemically important financial institutions) feature of Dodd-Frank.

    I think that’s right. Obama fundamentally doesn’t disagree with Romney on all that much. And the flip side is that fundamentally, Romney doesn’t really disagree with Obama all that much.

    Lies? Sure. But when it comes to these candidates and telling voters the truth, I don’t see it as a partisan issue. I see it as a bipartisan issue. The whole idea is to be the most pleasing liar in order to garner the votes to win…so that they can then engage in support of the status quo. Or something like that.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Roman Berry: Agree that’s a big part of the problem. Obama refused to lie about his conservative beliefs last night, most notably on education and SS. But there are areas where he or his record differs from Mitt, and he didn’t even use those.

  3. coral says:

    I’m watching Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson in a “highlights” segment on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program this morning. Just on the first question, both Stein and Anderson seemed a lot more substantive and accessible than either Romney or Obama.

  4. Mack says:

    I see this election as the return to the “lesser of two evils” I have come to expect in my adult life. This is in contrast to the past two elections which I characterize as “the *far* lesser of two evils”.Obama was my State Rep, then my Congressman, then my US Senator. I have always considered him a gifted orator and a run of the mill politician in terms of effectiveness instituting the grand principles about which he speaks so well.
    I must admit I do not have great insight: my impression of GWB was a buffoon who would do minimal damage as a one-term reaction to Clinton’s scandals. I was wrong. That said, my impression of this election is that, despite the framing of the two very different directions the candidates represent, they are as different as pink and blue cotton candy. I think the course is charted and the main differences are principally which elite groups benefit most from the gutting of public welfare. Rommney/Ryan are more radical, so Obama gets my vote, and there is enough of a difference to matter. That’s my .02

  5. lefty665 says:

    @emptywheel: Yep.

    When O announced he and Mittens did not disagree on Social Security, the evening was over. Obama is part of a Democratic party that has abandoned all reason for being.

    We had an evening of a right wing Repub and Mittens shedding the Tea baggage he accumulated during the primaries. Obama carried the baggage for him, to the extent of letting Mittens take the moral high ground on Wall Street and banks.

    The chickens of not standing for anything are coming home to roost. In the longer run (re-election for one), positional authority is no substitute for leadership.

    Look out, the grand bargain is coming, and it’ll be even worse if it’s lame ducks on both ends of PA Ave.

  6. Peterr says:

    Jon Lovitz had the classic line for SNL’s Dukakis/GHWBush debate spoof in 1988, after watching a bumbling GHWBush stumble through an answer: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” Sadly, from Dukakis’ perspective, the real candidate never said this himself.

    If Lovitz were to come back as 2012 Obama for SNL this weekend, his debate line would be “I can’t believe you’re buying this guy’s lies.” The question for Team Obama is whether Obama will be saying it himself.

  7. lefty665 says:

    @Mack: Yeah, we’ve had 3 1/2 years of positioning 1/2 step left of the rightmost dingbat. “Lesser evil” is the re-election vision, and it has been relentlessly implemented.

    Mittens & pink eye are much worse. How does it feel to be so deliberately “lesser evil” manipulated? Are you really ready to reward that?

  8. Peterr says:

    Mr Pierce channels his inner EW:

    The president seemed incapable of making a full-throated defense of anything, including his own presidency, as though that were somehow beneath the dignity of his office, and somehow contrary to his essential political nature. I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t vote for Chris Christie against the incumbent for Prince of Hell, but if he wants to take me to the track sometime, I’m there. He called it all over the Sunday shows.

    Willard Romney, staunch opponent of the big Wall Street banks.

    Jesus wept, but that’s hilarious.

    The fact is that the president is a cool and rational man and he is facing someone who is running as a caricature not only of himself, but of the several other selves he’s found it convenient to construct for himself along the way. It is possible that a cool and rational man is incapable of confronting someone this ridiculous on the simple grounds of how ridiculous that someone actually has become. How to do it may not be within the cool and rational man’s comprehension. But what happened on Wednesday night — and, more to the point, what the president allowed to happen on Wednesday night — has changed this entire election.

    Lots more at the link, and all of it very well said.

  9. lefty665 says:

    @Mack: That’s the question I’ve been asking here. If I had an easy answer I’d be screaming it from the rooftops.

    The issues are substantive as well as offensive. Demonstrably innocent children (and others) are among the US citizens killed by drone strikes. Those drone strikes are apparently ordered by O personally with no judicial process. NDAA gives him the same authority domestically. That’s shorthand tip of the iceberg.

    Is freedom twice lost any more lost? O is worse than Duhbya in part because at least a few Dems found enough backbone to oppose Duhbya’s excesses. Not much of a peep these days. Devil’s advocate (not just a figure of speech anymore), we may be better off in opposition.

    Can I live with myself (or even have standing to bitch) if I vote to ratify that behavior and encourage more in a second term? Can you?

    My first Presidential vote was Hump vs Slippery, and I have not missed one since. I’ll be out for down ticket races this year, but have not come to a decision about Pres. I am still looking for that answer. This ain’t a good time. We’re down to eating democracy’s seed corn.

  10. OrionATL says:

    if you enjoy watching two grown men,

    each of whom wants to be president of the united states,

    smirk at each other’s comments for two full hours,

    then last night’s impresidential debate was great fun.

  11. What Constitution says:

    @lefty665: As “lesser of two evils” goes, it may really come down to Obama using his own unconscionable policies as the best reason to re-elect him: “Who you want unilaterally targeting those drones and militarily detaining people — Mitt Romney or me?” The prospect of handing control of the current pre-Magna Carta monarchy (which Obama alone has solidified and extended) to the Republican party actually does seem fraught with being worse than what’s happening now, which suggests the damage is already done and we’re just rearranging deck chairs….

  12. OrionATL says:

    ew writes:

    “… Last night, Obama’s anger at Mitt’s criticisms and lies was channeled into looking down, occasionally forcing a smile out of those pursed lips, though only on a few occasions with enough mockery to successfully undercut what Mitt was saying…”

    i didn’t read obama’s non-verbal that way at all.

    i read it as the practiced smirk that presidential debaters have been using for years. **

    why they let their coaches and handlers talk them into such non-verbal behavior is beyond me.

    it is impresidential and demeaning to each man as well as to any watching citizen.

    ** see the picture accompanying the charles pierce article cited above by peterr

  13. OrionATL says:

    @seedeevee:

    david atkins provided a counterview from prevailing “wisdom” about last night’s debate.

    that’s all i asked of him or his article.

    others have made similar arguments and these arguments seem worth weighing.

    we’re all a “hack” to someone out there.

  14. Mary McCurnin says:

    The whole thing is depressing. I elected to go to the grocery store as I found that that I could not stay in front of the tv. But I couldn’t stop turning the car radio on, then off. on, then off. Their voices made me feel hopeless. Neither man has a moral center. Who ever wins, we will be waiting out the next four years for a sane, cogent leader.

    . . . . oh never mind.

  15. prostratedragon says:

    You know, today I actually saw somewhere that some pundit recommended watching the Presidential debate with the sound turned off, to determine who “won.”

    But it seemed to me as though the good, or more likely bad, news in a Presidential debate was likely to come in the form of words that someone said, so I bypassed the visual entirely and listened on the radio (while following the Yankees game and other stuff), which made Romney sound so loud and hyperactive that I actually appreciated Obama’s relative quiet. And maybe Obama got more bulletin board stuff from Romney to use over the next couple of weeks than the reverse, what with the latter’s continuing to shift positions and it seemed to me, becoming outright incoherent once or twice.

    Now here’s a couple of minutes of something that’s well-communicated by the body language without the sound:

    J.T. Walsh running a Big Store, from The Grifters

  16. vastleft says:

    I don’t think this sort of passage does the discourse any good:

    “Mitt Romney had the demeanor of someone who couldn’t stand that an unaccomplished black man failed to accord his business and governmental success due respect”

    The charge of racism has been misused an awful lot vis-a-vis Obama opponents / critics, much as the charge of antisemitism has been against Israel critics / Palestinian defenders.

    If and when Romney says or does something racist*, let’s scream about it to the rafters. But intuiting this racialized aspect from his debate demeanor is a bridge too far.

    As with the gratuitous cries of “antisemitism,” this cried-wolf stuff is both unfair to the targets and creates cynicism about genuine acts and words of bigotry when they do occur.

    * By my lights, Romney’s birth-certificate “joke” a while back was racist. The point of his joke was that he had solid American bona fides that Obama presumably didn’t, refueling the sordid birther attacks.

  17. OrionATL says:

    @Mary McCurnin:

    “…neither man has a moral center…”.

    there you’ve gone and said it, mary mcurnin –

    the crux of our very severe national leadership problem!

    it applies to these two men in spades, but also to too many others of our way-too-well-off-to-be-a-good-national-leader national leaders.

    the well-to-do and the rich need to be carefully screened before being allowed to run for, or be appointed to, federal office.

  18. Nox Ninox says:

    Also, when you purposefully avoid a primary, don’t be surprised when the wheels on your campaign battle wagon seize up from rust the first time you finally take her out in the general.

    Romney’s had two solid years of hard campaigning to test his message before live and sometimes even hostile crowds. Obama’s message sounded like it was field tested at a DLC mixer.

    Go figure…

  19. OrionATL says:

    @vastleft:

    i happen to agree with you – that comment added nothing but did detract, though not a whit from romney’s performance.

    such a comment does grate because obama campaign adviser david axelrod, et al., proved themselves energetic deployers of false charges of racism, direct and indirect, against obama’s opponents in 2008.

    as axelrod certainly understood, such tactics served to heighten obama’s support among black voters who had themselves experienced a lifetime of racism – experiences with which obama had had little experience in his entire fortunate upper-middle-class life.

  20. lefty665 says:

    @What Constitution: “As “lesser of two evils” goes, it may really come down to Obama using his own unconscionable policies as the best reason to re-elect him… the damage is already done and we’re just rearranging deck chairs….” Bingo!

    We know Obama has refused to prosecute war crimes “Look forward, don’t look back”. Look forward 3 1/2 years, Obama has with no judicial process unilaterally ordered drone strikes. Some of which have killed US citizens, some of whom were children, others were demonstrably innocent.

    Along with a lot of other people, I worked hard to help elect Obama in 2008. Can we now blithely ignore the consequences of our actions because Obama has carefully positioned himself to be the “Lesser Evil”? Is it really that easy to wash our hands of what we have wrought?

    Mittens seems like a self serving arrogant turd, but he has never had the opportunity to shelter war criminals. Nor has he unilaterally ordered the killing of US citizens, as far as we know. Despite all his despicable behavior, there is a factual argument to be made that he has cleaner hands than Obama, the man many of us helped elect.

    How can any of us have any claim to ethical conduct if we ratify the actions of this administration by voting for Obama again?

    Obama said Mittens will be no worse on SS than he is. Move my deck chair over by the rail please so when the lame duck “Grand Bargain” cuts the heart out of SS and Medicare it will be easier to push me over the rail. Arguably, because he is a Repub, some Dems may develop backbones and help him become better. That is a service they have refused to provide one of their own.

  21. Skilly says:

    At the risk of being obtuse:

    I thought Romney was trying to bait Obama into getting angry. He disrespected the president, not just the man. He argued with The moderator, even threatening to defund his careers work. He used veiled comments, like his “boys” telling untruths, which was barely veiled attempts to say that Obama was a lying black man. I think his strategy was to bait him into anger and then try to capitalize on it, if he succeeded. If he did not succeed, then he looked aggressive and “take charge.”
    Obama looked like he was playing Jackie Robinson in his first year in MLB. He was not going to accept the taunt or disrupt his decorum. I just wish he would have said, “Mitt, You just don’t think that rules apply to you, do you?” Ah, If only I could have prepared him for that one.

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