President Obama was stiff and tentative in Wednesday night’s debate with Mitt Romney. But it wasn’t the worst debate performance he’s ever delivered. That was in 2000, when he was running for Congress against Bobby Rush.
Obama was losing the election, and knew it. A race that would have been difficult under any circumstances became impossible after he missed a vote on an anti-gun bill he’d supported because he was visiting his grandmother in Hawaii. When he returned to Chicago, the callow state senator was castigated in the Tribune’s “Inc.” column (the headline: “D-U-M”), and by callers to WVON. Soon after, he debated state Sen. Donne Trotter, the third candidate in the race, in the dank basement of Tuley Park fieldhouse. (Rush skipped the forum, but later debated on WVON and WTTW.) The missed vote was foremost on the audience’s mind.
“If you initiate a lot of ideas and at the time of a vote you’re not there, how can we count on you?” a voter asked.
Obama answered curtly. “If you look at my record in Springfield, I don't miss votes. I missed one as a result of my daughter being sick. That’s an exceptional situation that doesn't arise often.”
The man didn’t buy Obama’s excuse.
“If you tell me this is one of your issues, and then you miss the vote, that concerns me,” he said afterwards. “With that in mind, I’m very reluctant to support him for anything. I think he’s biting off a little more than he can chew. He’s got some good issues, but he’s too green.”
That was the debate where Obama -- uptight about his impending loss -- finally lost his cool. Even his body language signaled he was slumming that night. He sat with his lanky legs crossed, chin cocked at a heroic angle. He wasn’t even trying to conceal his impatience with Trotter, a mere state senate colleague, or with this grungy necessity of campaigning.
Trotter was a traditional Chicago politician. He liked to brag about the pork he brought home to his district -- $26 million for a library at Chicago State University, $75 million for resurfacing Lake Shore Drive -- and he was a cloakroom operator who knew how to pass a bill. He’d been an architect of the state’s child health care system. Like many senators, Trotter thought Obama considered himself too cool for the chamber and disdained the hard work of digging up votes. That night, he shared that perception with the voters in the folding chairs. Trotter hunched over his microphone, taking digs at his increasing irritated rival. When he finally needled Obama for failing to corral enough votes to override Ryan’s veto of the child support bill, Obama’s calm dissolved.
“Senator, that's a distortion!” Obama snapped. His baritone went full fathom five, but he never unbent from his patrician pose.
Obama has developed enough self-discipline not to blow up in public. But his worst debating habits -- impatience with the forum, disdain for an opponent -- were on display again in Denver.