Much has been written about McCain’s mercurial temperament during the past few weeks. An election campaign that was supposed to be all about Barack Obama has turned out to be all about John McCain. In the process, the other side of the equation — Obama’s steadiness throughout — has been pretty much overlooked. Just after the House shot down the bailout, Obama took to the stage in Colorado, and the contrast with McCain couldn’t have been greater: “Now is not the time for fear, now is not the time for panic,” he said. “We may not be able to do everything overnight…But I want you to understand, I know we can do it…Things are never smooth in Congress. It will get done.”
We journalists have an extensive vocabulary for cataloging the failures of politicians and a skimpy one for celebrating their successes. It’s safer to be skeptical: no one will ever accuse you of being in the tank. And so we’ve heard lots, in a negative way, about Obama’s coolness and intellectuality. And at times in this campaign — during Hillary Clinton’s populist transformation, after Sarah Palin’s convention speech — Obama’s demeanor has seemed problematic. He was too remote, too cerebral and nuanced in his answers, it was said; he had to get warmer, learn to love junk food, practice his bowling. But Obama stubbornly remained himself through the tough times; his preternatural calm has proved reassuring in both the economic crisis and the first debate. “His performance has been polished and steady,” a prominent Republican told me. “John’s has not been.”
Part of Obama’s steadiness is born of necessity: An angry, or flashy, black man isn’t going to be elected President. But I’ve also gotten the sense, in the times I’ve interviewed and chatted with him, that calm is Obama’s natural default position. He is friendly, informal, accessible…and a mystery, hard to get to know. He doesn’t give away much, doesn’t — unlike Bill Clinton — have that desperate need to make you like him. His brilliant, at times excessive, oratory is an outlier — the only over-the-top, Technicolor quality he has. There has been no grand cathartic moment for him in this campaign, but rather a steady accretion of trust, a growing public sense that he knows what he’s talking about and isn’t going to get crazy on us. His demeanor has rendered foolish all the rumors about his alleged radicalism. This guy is the furthest thing imaginable from an extremist; McCain, by his own admission, is the bomb-thrower in this race.
Obama’s performance in the first debate was Exhibit A. My first reaction was that Obama didn’t make any mistakes, but he allowed McCain to attack him relentlessly without making an effective counterattack. I saw it as a toss-up, not a momentum changer; the public, however, saw it as a clear-cut Obama win. In retrospect, there were two reasons for this. The first became clear when I read the transcript: Obama was far more forceful on the page than he was on the screen. He just lambasted McCain quietly. A key moment was the Iraq question: McCain was very strong here, slamming Obama for not supporting the surge. But Obama’s litany of things McCain had gotten wrong (“You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators …”) was devastating. And his bottom line — that the war in Iraq had been a diversion from the real fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan — made far more sense.
Obama’s other great advantage was visual. He seemed, literally and figuratively, the bigger man. McCain’s problem wasn’t so much that he never looked at Obama; it was that he never looked at the camera. He seemed pinched, evasive, uncomfortable. Obama, by contrast, looked at both McCain and the camera. He addressed the public directly, seemed utterly confident and unflappable throughout.
The polls have McCain in free fall now. “John’s advisers are sitting around, trying figure out their next Hail Mary pass,” the prominent Republican told me. “But most Hail Marys aren’t successful. They fall to the ground in the end zone.” Sometimes a frantic heave will net a score, but you get the sense that even if McCain stages a last-minute rally, Obama will not be daunted. Under insane pressure — as brutal a year on the stump as I’ve ever seen — he has kept his head. He is the least angry man.