By Dana Milbank
DENVER — Barack Obama received a valuable reminder in his drubbing the first debate: He is a president, not a king.
In the hours after the Republican challenger Mitt Romney embarrassed the incumbent in their first meeting, Obama loyalists expressed puzzlement that the incumbent had done badly. But Obama has only himself to blame, because he set himself up for this emperor-has-no-clothes moment. For the past four years, he has worked assiduously to avoid being questioned, maintaining a regal detachment from the media and other sources of dissent and skeptical inquiry.
Obama has set a modern record for refusal to be quizzed by the media, taking questions from reporters far less often than did Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush. Obama has shied from mixing it up with members of Congress, too. And, especially since Rahm Emanuel’s departure, Obama is surrounded by a large number of yes men who aren’t likely to get in his face.
This insularity led directly to the Denver debacle: Obama was out of practice and unprepared to be challenged. The White House had supposed that Obama’s forays into social media — town hall meetings with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the like — would replace traditional presidential communication. By relying on such venues, Obama’s argument skills atrophied, and he was ill-equipped to engage in old-fashioned give and take.
Luckily for Obama, the debates are, as one adviser put it Thursday, “a three-game series.” Romney’s after-debate glow will likely fade as he attempts to explain his dubious assertions that he would not reduce taxes paid by the wealthy and that his tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit. But even if Obama ultimately prevails, he should remember Denver as a warning: He does himself no favors by hiding from tough questioning.
Towson University political scientist Martha Kumar, who keeps a running tally of Obama’s media appearances, tells me he had 19 solo news conferences in the White House as of Sept. 30. That compares to 26 for Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency, 59 for George H.W. Bush, and 31 for Bill Clinton. Obama had more formal news conferences than George W. Bush (13), but Bush engaged in many more informal Q&A sessions with reporters: 340 at this stage in his presidency to Obama’s 105. (Clinton had 585 at this point, the elder Bush had 309 and Reagan had 135.)
Obama hasn’t held a news conference since June. After a Cabinet meeting in July, a reporter tried to ask him whether new gun laws were needed after the Colorado shooting — and Obama brushed off the inquiry with a joke.
In lieu of taking hard questions, Obama has opted for gauzy, soft-focus interviews with the likes of “Entertainment Tonight,” gentle appearances on late-night comedy shows, kid-glove satellite hits with regional TV stations, and joint appearances with the first lady where questions are certain to be soft. Tough questions are rare in one-on-one interviews, because Obama controls the topic — and the interviewer wants to be invited back.
The problem of president-in-the-bubble isn’t unique to this one. As Democrats were quick to point out Wednesday night, other incumbent presidents — Jimmy Carter, Reagan and both Bushes — did poorly in their first debates. One former Obama White House official directly attributed Obama’s diminished debating skills to four years in the White House removed from verbal sparring.
Obama’s body language conveyed a sense that he felt it beneath him to be sharing a stage with Romney. The Republican National Committee released a video Thursday morning titled “Smirk” that showed Obama’s reaction to Romney’s barbs (eyes downcast, lips pursed, taking notes). He frequently tossed in phrases that indicated annoyance with the proceedings, which he thought were covering old ground (“We’ve had this discussion before. … As I indicated earlier. … “).
After a night to sleep on it, and some time to huddle with aides, Obama on Thursday found the lively retorts that had eluded him Wednesday night. “When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” he told supporters in Denver. “But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
Nice comeback. Had Obama allowed himself to be challenged over the past four years, he might have come up with it in real time.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.