Monday, October 8, 2012

Dear Mr. President,



The newspaper headline here in India read "Romney Chainsaws Obama" and went on to describe your debate appearance as tired and lacking in fire.  That's what I hear from home as well.
My first reaction was to blame staff: they could not have prepped you with a fighting Romney, as they should have; they let you off easy, confident you had the stuff; they failed to bear down on the fierce importance of the moment.  A strong performance and Romney's last chance slips away.
That may be true because adoring staff can do that. They need to work you hard and you need humility to hear the truth.
How many times have you said "This campaign is not about me, it's about all of us"?  I wonder now what that means to you.  Because in a debate it is all about you.  There is no one else in the ring.  You have to draw the fire out of yourself or from people in your corner who bring in you "the fierce urgency of now."
You may be genuinely tired.  It's a heavy load. You may be heart weary of staying on message day after day. Who could blame you? Humbert Humphrey, the happy warrior, you are not, nor Lynon Johnson who held his demons at bay long enough to heal a nation.  You don't love politics and politics has seldom been harder.
But weariness is not an option. You are not free to remain safe within yourself.  The highest reason is the presidency, of course.  But in a half dozen Senate races and two dozen House races candidates have worked themselves to "within the margin of error" and your success could determine theirs.  
No one expects the Washington deadlock to be broken but it could freeze up tight enough for ice fishing with a loss here and there. 
I know White House gnomes are not following my tiny blog so I'll drop, for the moment, the pretense of writing to you in favor of a personal example before coming back to the second debate.
I came to India equiped with a tiny video camera to record stuff for the ACCION web site, in particular a couple of pieces about why we started ACCION and comparing 1961 to now.  I enlisted Suhindra Kundapura, Vindhya's market guy, as my cameraman.  I recorded several takes I thought were pretty good but as we got to know each other Sudhindra said, "It's not quite right. I hear the words but I still don't know why you started ACCION."
So I thought about it for a weekend.  I remembered one man in particular who had no legs wheeling himself through the market in Lagos, Nigeria. He got to me in the summer of 1958 and had something to do with starting ACCION.  I needed to talk about him.
The next time we videotaped I set aside what I had prepared  in favor of what came out closer to my heart and more like a story.  We recorder three segments in a row, all on first take.  Someone else had to say my set piece wasn't the real deal and get me out of my head.
Mr. President, for some part of the next debate you have to start over.  You've got to rake away the duff and detris of speeches past.  To close the deal people do want to hear you.  Yes, it is about you, the Obama we might not have heard from yet. 
Early on election night in l980, Jimmy Carter knew he wouldn't get second term so he conceded defeat before polls were closed in the Mountain West and on the West Coast. Maybe he was tired.  Probably Frank Church would still have lost narrowly to Steve Symms but we can't be sure.  You can't be sure either unless you do your very best.
I read today that although you lost the debate, polls haven't budged much. So safety is whispering to you, "Stay the course.  I'm okay. Just give the speech again."   Don't believe it for a minute.  Voters are not finished with you, I hope, are not finished with the voters.    

  I'd like to thank Chief Allen, chief of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, for this photo from Obama's 2008 rally in Boise.

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