This left many of his most fervent supporters discouraged, disillusioned, and very frightened (no matter how much bravado some tried to show after the fact; indeed, a student of psychology could argue that the more bravado expressed, the more fear they were actually feeling.)
It didn't help calm any nerves when the polls confirmed that Romney had run away with the debate in the minds of the court of public opinion (aka the potentially voting public) rather than being jettisoned for being a lyin' liar of epic proportions willing to say anything to become President that everyone knows he is and that Romney confirmed he is that very same night (to anyone who was listening to substance and comparing it to truth, anyhow). It went from bad to worst when Romney, who had been looking almost hopelessly out of the running before the Oct. 3 debate, by Oct. 15 had closed President Obama's commanding lead in the polls.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
Naturally, given that folks expected a far different outcome from Oct. 3, the speculations about why President Obama had done so poorly ran wild. President Obama was unable to prepare because he was busy running the country. He was suffering from altitude fatigue. He "didn't really" lose, after all.
Things were even more perplexing when, given who President Obama really is, he immediately was back in the high mojo zone as soon as he got back on the campaign trail. Indeed, the very next day Obama was rightfully taking the rhetorical fight to Romney, saying point blank that if someone is going to run for president, they “owe the American people the truth” about their policy positions. This merely resulted in huge swaths of the president’s supporters scratching their heads, saying:
Where was this guy yesterday?
Setting all excuses aside, when for whatever reasons he took the pedagogic, wonkish approach that he did at the Oct. 3 debate (when the largest number of people who are not partisans would be watching and evaluating him for President), President Obama arguably forfeited (temporarily, at least) the clear advantage over Romney he always had as a master campaigner and a master politician. He jettisoned the Vision Thing that had excited America into sweeping him into office in 2008 for something far more humble and muted, in what some say was a deliberate change in strategy for this election.
But he also did something else. He opened the door to application of negative stereotypes about him to explain the change.
For example, President Obama's debate performance was so bad that it gave Romney's folks the cover to shamelessly Go There with one of the most powerful anti-Black stereotypes operating in America: that the President was "lazy."
The "lazy" stereotype was not the only stereotype at issue, however, or even the most dangerous for the President when it comes to his reelection chances (particularly given the blowhard who was calling him lazy). Instead, the most dangerous stereotypes that appeared to be at issue for President Obama were two others, one of which was not even really articulated after Oct. 3: the perjorative stereotypes of the "Girlie Man" and the "Angry Black Man."
Stereotype has enormous power when it comes to American politics in general and picking presidents in particular. After all, it's not as if voters are picking presidents based solely, or even primarily, on their actual qualifications for the job. Most Americans simply do not closely follow the minutiae of a candidate's policy positions or that candidate's actual political record. When it comes to picking “the best” candidate for president, much of the time the country is trying to pick the best campaigner, its closest proxy for identification of who is the best “leader.” Not the best policy wonk. Or bureaucrat. (The fact that “leadership” requires skill at all of these things to a certain degree seems almost secondary.)
And, at least in America, one of the key campaign moments for presidential elections is the debates. But debates are unbelievably short moments in time in which the candidates try to make their impressions to the tens of millions of people watching. Since no presidential can thoroughly discuss any single subject of importance when he has at best 2-3 minutes to speak on it, debates are in effect a compilation of (hopefully) sexy soundbites, surrounded by what many viewers are really interested in: a candidate's projection of strong, forceful leadership and vision.
The trouble is, that the unconscious mind is readily affected by cultural "norms" about what strong visionary leaders are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act. And about who they are supposed to be.
Here's what they are not supposed to be:
Passive. Timid. Weak.
What has been called, in a political context, the "Girlie Man."
As popularized by that former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the culturally Neanderthal term "girlie man" is used in politics is used to describe a politician who is not brave, has no guts and is a wimp. It is a term born of the unholy marriage between misogyny and homophobia. Yet it also reflects our ongoing cultural biases about what strong politicians and leaders are supposed to be. And what they are not supposed to be.
Now, we all know that on the campaign trail, President Obama is a forceful, commanding persuasive leader. His genius stuns us all, at times (such as his most recent genius, "Romnesia"). But the trouble is that speaking at campaign events is speaking, largely, to people who partisans, often quite passionately so. In contrast, the tens of millions of people who make up the audience of televised debates are mostly not political partisans. Many who tune into the debates on TV try not to think about politics at all except once every four years. And many have little information other than that which they garner from the debate itself. Which is why, lacking information, image (which is affected by stereotypes) looms particularly large in the political debate context. It is what people see, far more than what they hear, that is most likely to sway a potential voter.
But a strong, forceful leader is not what President Obama projected on Oct. 3. By not doing so, he fed into a narrative that the right wing has been telling for years: that President Obama is a weak politician. A "Girlie Man."
The debates are not the first time that Romney, a bully if there ever was one, and his minions have taken rhetorical advantage of Obama behaving as if he were hamstrung by his refusal at times to fight with guts and gusto for what he believes in. Assessments that Obama was a brilliant politician but a weak leader have gone back for years, during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, and last year's debt limit showdown. It therefore makes sense that Romney was more than happy to Go There when a U.S. spy drone crashed in Iran and the president (a sane person) decided that use of the military to retrieve or destroy it was not on the table: "He was extraordinarily timid and weak at a critical moment." Now, at that time, Mitt Romney had exactly zero standing to say anything about Obama; he had not yet secured his party's nomination. But it didn't stop him from making the claim anyway. This line of attack on the President—that he is weak—was ratcheted up to "11" by the right wing after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, which said that the attack was the consequence of Obama's weakness. This narrative jumped the shark completely when gasbag John Sununu, a key player in the Romney attack machine, referred to President Obama as both "weak" and "timid." Why? Because he "waited too long" to take out Osama Bin Laden?!?! Indeed, the craziest of the crazy right wing has now even gone so far as to claim that Obama is gay on the down low—the ultimate childish American "insult" these days (as if being called gay is something that one should feel insulted about, which it is only to troglodytes).
The right wing has been trying, largely without success, to take this overt narrative of weakness to the next level of rhetorical intensity, to the overt label of "Girlie Man" being tagged onto the President, for some time now. The "Girlie Man" trope has been occasionally brought out, starting a couple of years ago, first with reactions to President Obama pitching a baseball. It was raised within the context of him going on "The View". Indeed, one of the most racist pieces ever penned by a mainstream journalist about President Obama's approach to politics referred to him outright as "our first female president" (even as the author said that she wasn't calling him a "girlie man." Post-Benghazi, you had a Republican politician on the stump reiterating this scurrilous meme, pitching for a Romney/Ryan election on the grounds that this would put "real men" in the White House, with the unwashed masses listening to them screaming "No Girlie Men!"
Until Oct. 3, the charge was so ludicrous to most of the uninformed masses of the American people that it never got any traction. And, indeed, spoken plainly, it is ludicrous, the idea of the President as a "weak" politician. A political "Girlie Man." But no matter how one slices it, the reality is that President Obama's horrible Oct. 3 debate performance was that he projected, without meaning to, the image of weakness. Of timidity. Of being defeated. Even to his fierce, passionate supporters. And that image caused many people subconsciously and consciously worry that that President Obama was simply not up to the task of renewed leadership; not enough of a "Real Man" to be re-elected President. Based upon the unspoken stereotypes of what being a "Real Man" and not a "Girlie Man" means, and how a "Real Man" is supposed to react when another man is attacking him unfairly with lies and bullying. Like Mitt Romney was on Oct. 3.
Look at the fact that the group that seemed to have been most affected in their support for President Obama's re-election by the Oct. 3 debate was women and you have to seriously consider the impact of stereotypes about "Real Men" and "Girlie Men" (even when they are NEVER consciously thought of in those terms) and how they relate to political leadership and the presidency. Prior to Oct. 3, President Obama's lead over Romney with women voters was in the double digits. After Oct. 3? Obama's polled lead among women began eroding rapidly. And it was an erosion that even Democratic strategists were willing to link to President Obama's debate performance on Oct. 3.
Since only a crazy person would believe that women were all of a sudden flocking to Mitt Romney based upon either his rhetoric or his record on women's issues, this change had to be explained by something else.
One, quite plausible explanation, is the subconscious impact of the "Girlie Man" stereotype on the perception of strong political leadership in those voters who are not passionate partisans, but regular people:
I really appreciated that Romney took it upon himself to look at Obama, look him in the eyes,” said Megan Hoffman, DC resident. “And Obama, he was kind of - he would look down or wouldn't exactly address Romney."The true power of this stereotype of the Girlie Man and its impact on President Obama's changes was demonstrated, however, not just by his Oct. 3 debate performance, but by the reactions to his Oct. 16 debate performance, in which all of the behavioral triggers that scream "weakness" to our unconscious mind were gone.
With the result that the polls are, once again, showing President Obama surging.
But this was not the only insidious stereotype quietly at work. The Angry Black Man stereotype also played a huge role in shaping the character of President Obama's debate performance on both nights.
The albatross of the "Angry Black Man" stereotype has hung around President Obama's neck since the day he became a serious candidate for President. The right wing has made been singing this narrative loudly with it since before Day 1 of President Obama's tenure, and has never let up. There is not enough room on the blog screen to link to the stories reporting the latest iteration of this canard by the right wing. President Obama's entire term has been a demonstration of his doing everything he can to avoid getting tagged by that label, knowing the nation's fear of a Black president.
Yet equally passionately, the Left has also been enslaved by the narrative; enslaved and fearful. Each and every time that the President was called to task for not being forceful, for not fighting for what he believes in or the policies he wanted for the country or and especially for not calling out the Republicans as the lying, hypocritical, obstructionist jackasses that they are—each and every time he was being called "weak and timid" (in other words, being called a "Girlie Man" without anyone consciously thinking about or using the phrase)—the knee-jerk response was that he could not. Because he could not afford to be seen as an Angry Black Man.
So, immediately before the debates, at the same time as it was taking its claims that the President was "weak" and "timid" to a renewed high, Romney and his surrogates were also making bank on this president's campaign's heretofore demonstrated terror of being labeled "Angry" in the same phrase as "Black" in white voters' minds. Immediately before the debates, they launched what partisans legitimately recognized as a pitiful attack strategy grounded in a five-year-old speech in which President Obama righteously discussed the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina and what should be done in terms of reinvestment in New Orleans. That strategy was a full-throated embrace of the "Angry Black Man" stereotype, no question.
Yet despite this, no matter which political side of the aisle they were on everyone agreed that Obama simply couldn’t "go there." Ever, as President. They were still saying this, even after Oct. 3. Indeed, in response to Joe Biden's trouncing of Paul Ryan, folks noted white privilege as the reason that President Obama couldn't really fight during the Oct. 3 debate - the fear that he would come off as Angry Black Man, and the right wing would go insane. This idea, that President Obama lost the Oct. 3 debate because he was hamstrung in his ability to respond to Romney's shameless attack-dog lying by the "Angry Black Man" stereotype, has been repeated quite a bit since. The possibility has been raised that, in particular, the right-wing noise machine's raising the ABM spectre right before the debate (with the attack on President Obama's five-year old Katrina speech) signaled the President that he could not afford to be anything but chill on Oct. 3, no matter how righteous he might have felt.
Given this unique combination of negative stereotypes and how they play upon perceptions of our nation's first Black president, President Obama's Oct. 3 debate performance, despite the desperate excuses made for it, was devastating to his public image as a leader in the minds of those who are not partisans, not passionate about politics, but put a lot of weight on things like debates to show them who will be the best choice as leader of the country. Presidents have given weak debate performances before, but never before have they given them faced with the twisted synergy between the right-wing narratives of the President as weak and timid ("Girlie Man") yet also as potentially out-of-control savage comin' to git white folks ("Angry Black Man") that the right-wing noise machine has relentlessly been terrorizing folks with for the past four years. That synergy ultimately devastating to the perceptions of President Obama. And it showed, in key post-Oct. 3 debate polls after the event.
One can therefore see the Oct. 16 presidential debate ultimately as the ultimate collision of two powerful American stereotypes: the stereotype of the Angry Black Man and the stereotype of the "Girlie Man." It certainly was a collision between the President that got rolled in his first debate with Romney (and he did; I’m not a believer in pretending reality isn’t reality just because it feels embarrassing or bad—that is behavior that has been perfected by the other side) and the President who, rhetorically, crushed Romney in the second debate with his confidence, certainty in the rightness of what he was saying and belief that he was entitled to be taken seriously—especially by the likes of Romney.
He appeared to be channelling his inner Angry Black Man. Just as some of the "Very Serious People" had hoped for.
And that's the good news in all this.
In that collision, whatever else one could say about the insidious power of stereotypes and how they play out with (or sometimes wreak havoc on) Obama's tenure, the truth is that an Angry Black Man won the Oct. 16 presidential debate against Mitt Romney.
Now, the Angry Black Man who won the debate on October 16 is not the ABM that folks who think they are cute sometimes make Obama posters that say, "Chill out ... I got this!" with false bravado. It was ABM with real bravery, the one that recognizes that sometimes, your fears may be your worst enemies because your enemies will use them against you.
Despite all the fears that have hampered him using the bully pulpit that he owns as President, this change of approach from passivity to "in your face" doesn't seem to have done President Obama's standing with the American voters anything but good. Indeed, there has been precious little negative written since Oct. 16 about Obama's debate performance (except for the shrill hue and cry of the meanness of it all from the right wing, and you knew that was coming). No one has accused Obama of being an “Angry Black man” despite the fact that Obama confronted, with conviction, righteous indignation and a refusal to be bullied, each and ever piece of tripe that was being spewed by his opponent. He did so with firmness, and clarity. He pointed his finger. He scowled. Hell, at one point he and the Mitt were even pacing off toward each other, no doubt causing a few viewers who have seen a few throwdowns to reflexively go, “Oh shit!” as they were approaching each other. He ultimately realized that his "cool, calm and collected way of politicking ... didn't do him any favors." He was just too polite when the circumstances called for something different:
They called for him to defend himself. Defend his record. His dignity. His entitlement to respect for having worked hard and accomplished good things, even if they weren't perfect things. And his right to not have posers the likes of Romney dissing him through lies and misrepresentations. And his right to put a stop to it. To fight, if necessary.
As a "Real Man" always does.
Ultimately, the boogeyman of the Angry Black Man that some have argued haunted Obama in the second debate (and haunted his entire presidency) and stayed his moves gave way to the stereotypical unconscious demand to "Be a Man" (in that stereotypical man kind of way) which arguably REQUIRED him not just to push back against lies. Not just to correct misimpressions. But to do so forcefully without hiding exactly how irritated—how pissed off—he was about Romney and how much he got on the President's last nerve.
Today? It does not appear that there was a single written article by any credible journalist accusing Obama of being an angry Black man, even though he was in Romney's FACE a good part of the night. And that is what an angry Black man really looks like when you’re judging one fairly, rather than through the racist lens of fear. Strong. Firm. Confident. Bullshit gets no quarter. And legitimate anger gets expressed, in a positive, productive way.
Even if it's with a raised eyebrow, a flat hand extended, effectively saying, "Now hold on just a damned minute." Decisive. With no downward glances into a notepad. Instead, with a straight, steady gaze, at one's opponent. And more significantly, at the American people watching him. Dominant, because he has a right in the particular circumstances to be.
Presidential, with just a small helping of righteous anger. Yet always with a smile that says, "Hey, I know I'm a good guy. And I know I'm good for America."
With no apparent fear of the albatross called the "Angry Black Man" stereotype that one could see hanging around his neck like a cement weight just two weeks before. On Oct. 16, 2012, President Obama appeared to maybe, finally, be losing his fear of being the "Angry Black Man."
Which stereotype scares America more when it comes to putting someone in charge of the whole country, by electing them president? The Angry Black Man? Or the Weak Man? It seems, judging by the comparison between polling reactions to the Oct. 3 presidential debate and the Oct. 16 presidential debate, that America would rather have an angry Black man President whose anger results from him getting tired of being lied on and misrepresented than a weak Black man President, and most definitely would rather have the ABM than the angry white man President whose anger is his version of entitled petulence.
But this also begs the question of whether all the serious strategists who insisted that Obama "couldn't" be angry were really just as enslaved by the false racist narrative of what it means to be an angry Black man as the President himself seems to have been this past four years.
Food for thought.
One could argue that it appears to have taken the fear of the stereotype of a political "Girlie Man" to overcome the fear of the stereotype of the "Angry Black Man." That's a depressing sadness we should not overlook and should reflect upon deeply as well.
But either way it is inarguable that the Very Serious People on the Left did reward the President for finally getting "angry" (especially as it related to Romney's getting SPANKED over the President's post-Benghazi Rose Garden speech), albeit some begrudgingly. He was praised, not criticized, as he should have been. This was despite those (to some people perhaps) "scary" debate moments where, if you know lots of big bruising men, Romney and Obama looked like they were on the verge of throwing down right there in front of Candy Crowley, physically getting into each other's space as, one article analogized, prize fighters circling each other and landing blows.
That President Obama was rewarded for projecting strength, certainty, and yes, power is hopefully is an indication that our culture's fear of the Angry Black Man may have been weakened more than could ever have been imagined coming from a debate. It appears to be that for the first time, a Black man could get up in a white man's face, tell him where to get off, get an attitude, and take control in front of millions of people.
America could stand to see more of this, if for no other reason than the chink in the subconscious wall of fear of the “Angry Black Man” that Obama's masterful performance unquestionably resulted in on Tuesday night.