Rich, the reason why President Obama disdains debates is not that he dislikes “media-driven gamesmanship,” which he seems to like perfectly fine as long as he’s winning the game in front of an adoring audience. (Cf. recent appearance on The View). What Obama has never shown much patience for is dealing with people who don’t already agree with him. When he’s on the stump, he can present his own version of the facts and mock his opponents before adoring audiences, with nobody to refute him. The talking points he has shaped in the course of four-plus years (many go back to the 2008 campaign) are great for preaching to the choir. But they are vulnerable to simple counter-arguments, and it’s not terribly hard to refute many of them outright.
Examples abound. Just think of Obama’s claiming credit for a boom in oil and gas production, and for a million new manufacturing jobs. The first is due directly to fracking; the second is due to the fact that dramatically lower energy costs have made American manufacturing globally competitive again, which even George Soros attributed to the fracking boom. (Lower energy costs dramatically lower costs for manufacturing.) Not only has the Obama EPA resisted fracking, but Obama himself tried from the start of his administration to constrict fossil-fuel production — through a totally unnecessary offshore-drilling moratorium that threw tens of thousands of Americans out of work; by slowing permits for shallow-water wells to a crawl; by reducing permits for drilling on federal land; and by his open war on coal, etc., etc. In fact, as I reported in an NR article back in April, for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the oil boom would be much bigger if it weren’t for administration policies — by perhaps 100,000 barrels per day and likely much more than that. This Department of Energy report, for example, shows a drop-off in offshore oil production for 2011, and only a slight increase in onshore oil production on federal land, at the same time that oil production on private land was booming. As Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu explained at the outset of the administration, the goal was to get gasoline prices to levels in Europe in order to make alternative energies more price-competitive. It is easy to demonstrate that the boom in oil and gas and manufacturing has come in spite of administration policy, not as a result of it.
The larger point is this. As the Obama team and its allies in the media try to figure out what went wrong, they are not likely to hit upon perhaps the most essential reason: The administration isn’t very good at convincing people that don’t already agree with them, and has never really tried. The president’s instinctive reaction when confronted with someone who disagrees with him is to act like the person simply didn’t understand him the first time round. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama’s vaunted rhetorical skills do not include an ability to respond to counter-arguments effectively. That explains not just his debate performance, but also his singular inability to gain support for his policies among Republicans in Congress and among conservatives at large.
This disadvantage inheres in the very nature of the Obama administration. Efforts to remedy it in the next few weeks are not likely to prove fruitful, if only because the administration is already wedded to talking points that are not designed to hold up in the cauldron of debate. They are designed for preaching to the choir, which is this administration’s specialty.