"Double Down" examines the debate that almost cost Obama a second-term election

The Mark Halperin and John Heilemann book goes behind the scenes of the 2012 presidential election


Prachi Gupta
November 3, 2013 11:00PM (UTC)

A recently published excerpt from "Double Down: Game Change 2012," the Mark Halperin and John Heilemann book that goes behind the scenes of the 2012 presidential election, reveals the intense drama that unfolded between Oct. 14 and Oct. 16 in 2012, the 48 hours between President Obama's disastrous first presidential debate in Denver, and his upcoming New York debate with GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

Published in New York magazine, the excerpt reveals that Obama, who despite being "most self-contained president in modern history," was riddled with self-doubt and almost gave up on the debate that could, according to advisor David Plouffe, “lose the whole fucking election.”

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Until the Denver debate, former president Bill Clinton thought Obama was "luckier that a dog with two dicks":

Before Denver, Clinton had watched in wonder as Obama caught break after break. Although the economy wasn’t roaring back, neither the European banking crisis nor the unrest in the Mideast had caused it to nosedive. Meanwhile, Romney’s ineptness staggered Clinton. After the release of the 47 percent video, he remarked to a friend that, while Mitt was a decent man, he was in the wrong line of work. (“He really shouldn’t be speaking to people in public.”) As for Obama, Clinton trotted out for his pals the same line again and again: “He’s luckier than a dog with two dicks.”

According to Democratic style coach Michael Sheehan, Obama was "creepy" in Denver's debate:

Watching from the set, the renowned Democratic style coach Michael Sheehan scribbled furiously on a legal pad, each notation more alarmed than the last. Reflecting on Obama’s interplay with the questioners, Sheehan summed up his demeanor with a single word: “Creepy.”

First Lady Michelle Obama's advice in response to the Denver debate was “It’s not about David Brooks; it’s about my mother":

The first lady worried about her Maximus and his return to the Colosseum. In truth, she had fretted over the debates even before Denver. In July, around the time her husband’s prep started, she met with Plouffe and expressed firm opinions. That Barack had to speak from the gut, in language that regular folks could understand. Had to avoid treating the debates like policy seminars. Had to keep his head out of the clouds. (Michelle’s advisers paraphrased her advice as “It’s not about David Brooks; it’s about my mother.”) FLOTUS loved POTUS like nobody’s business, but she knew his faults well.

Even after significant prep, Obama bombed again during a mock debate with campaign staffers. To drive the point home, speechwriter Jon Favreau transcribed the debate and used it to ridicule the president:

The full transcript was in hand within 45 minutes—and became a source of gallows humor. As the clock ticked well past midnight, Favreau stagily read aloud some of Obama’s most dreadful answers. Soon his colleagues joined in, with Axelrod, Benenson, and Plouffe offering recitations and laughing deliriously over the absurdity and horror of the circumstances.

The criticism and pressure prompted a rare, public-facing moment of introspection from the president:

“When I get a question,” he said, “I go right to the logical.” You ask me a question about health care. There’s a problem, and there’s a response. Here’s what my opponent might say about it, so I’m going to counteract that. Okay, we’re gonna talk about immigration. Here’s what I’d like to say—but I can’t say that. Think about what that means. I know what I want to say, I know where my mind takes me, but I have to tell myself, No, no, don’t do that—do this other thing. It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently. I’m left-handed; this is like you’re asking me to start writing right-handed.

“I just don’t know if I can do this,” Obama concluded:

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You keep telling me I can’t spend too much time defending my record, and that I should talk about my plans, he said. But my plans aren’t anything like the plans I ran on in 2008. I had a universal-health-care plan then. Now I’ve got … what? A manufacturing plan? What am I gonna do on education? What am I gonna do on energy? There’s not much there.

“I can’t tell you that ‘Okay, I woke up today, I knew I needed to do better, and I’ll do better,’ ” Obama said. “I am wired in a different way than this event requires.”

Obama paused. “I just don’t know if I can do this,” he said.

But the president ultimately came through during the debate, keeping his focus with this "debate-on-a-page":

MUST REMEMBER
1. (Your) Speed Kills (Romney)
2. Upbeat and Positive in Tone
3. Passion for People and Plans
4. OTR [Off the Record] Mind-set—Have Fun
5. Strong Sentences to Start and End
6. Engage the Audience
7. Don’t Chase Rabbits
BEST HITS
1. 47%
2. Romney + China Outsourcing
3. Heaven & Earth
4. 9/11 Girl
5. Sketchy Deal
6. Mass Taxes—Cradle to Grave
7. Preexisting and ER
8. Women’s Health
9. Borrow From Your Parents
REBUTTAL CHEAT SHEET
1. Jobs—The 1-point plan
2. Deficits—$7 trillion and The Sketchy Deal
3. Energy—Coal plant is a killer
4. Health—Preexisting fact check and the ER
5. Medicare—He wants to save Medicare … by ending it!
6. Bus Taxes—60 Mins in rebuttal (i.e., pivot to personal taxes)
7. Pers Taxes—Tax cuts for outsourcing (i.e., pivot to job creation)
8. Gridlock—Romney brings the lobbyist back
9. Benghazi—Taking offense
10. Education—Borrow from your parents and/or Size Doesn’t Matter

"Double Down: Game Change 2012" will be published Nov. 5, 2013, by the Penguin Press.


Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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2012 Election Barack Obama Books Debates Double Down Mitt Romney

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