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Obama's Professorial Advantage

This was one of Obama's better performances of the campaign (possibly his best), and I thought it had a lot to do with the format. All summer long--really for several years now--we've heard how McCain excels in townhall settings. But tonight he seemed old, cranky, and downright tired as he trooped around the stage. His movements were stiff and herky-jerky--surely a product of his brutal treatment in Vietnam, but nonetheless jarring to watch. Even his eyebrows seemed bushier than usual. My hunch is that McCain has benefited from having the stage to himself in past townhall meetings. Sharing the spotlight with a much younger, more vigorous and agile man really highlighted his physical liabilities in a way that hadn't previously been apparent.

By contrast, Obama really benefitted from his years as a law professor. He was fluent and very much at ease walking and talking at the same time. He had a professor's knack for making eye contact and maintaining it while he walked a questioner through a multi-step response. And his answers were much more concrete and intuitive than I'd ever heard them. It's as though it took fielding questions from ordinary people to remind him of this latent professorial talents.

On the question of health care, for example, Obama was effective at defusing McCain's cheap anti-government rhetoric with tangible evidence at every step of the way. He explained why healthcare should be a right by describing his mother's fight with insurers during the final months of her life. He explained that the reason he mandates coverage for children is that they're "relatively cheap to insure and we don't want them going to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma." And he exposed the shallowness of arguments about government intrusion by pointing out that, without regulators, insurers don't always deliver on what you pay them for. There wasn't an abstraction in the answer. Which is to say, it was professorial in the best sense (a teacher), not in the sense (highbrow and windy) that's often been applied to Obama.

Possibly the best example of this came when the debate turned to Pakistan. The questioner seemed hostile to Obama's approach: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?"

In response to which Obama did a number of important things. First, he provided some critical context: We wouldn't even be having this discussion had Bush destroyed al Qaeda before invading Iraq. Instead, Bush allowed al Qaeda to escape to Pakistan, from which they're sniping at our troops and destablizing the region. Next, Obama explained that we'd first exhaust other options--giving the Pakistanis an incentive to do the job themselves--before launching a strike. Only at that point, he said, and only "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out," would he give the go-ahead. It was about as far from gratuitously belligerent as you could get--and all thanks to Obama's soothing, professorial windup.

More importantly, I thought the Pakistan exchange was the moment when son overtook father in the Oedipal drama that's been a subtext of this campaign. After Obama gave his initial response, McCain pressed the absurd line that his opponent didn't understand talking softly while carrying a big stick--that he was, in other words, erratic.

Coming from a candidate whose name has been synonymous with "erratic" these last several weeks, it left McCain dangerously exposed, and Obama didn't miss with his counterpunch. "This is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,' who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of 'speaking softly,'" he said. "This is the person who, after we had--we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, 'Next up, Baghdad.'" As if to add insult to injury, Obama nearly straight-armed McCain when he tried to interrupt, underscoring not only his intellectual advantages but also his physical ones.

For his part, McCain was as lacking in coherence as Obama was fluent. He mangled his explanations and stepped on his own canned punchlines. His diction was bizarrely geriatric at times, culiminating with his inexplicable reference to Obama as "that one"--language befitting a grandchild who refuses to eat his broccoli. Though McCain has traditionally been deft at larding his responses with anecdotes, tonight was mostly argument by cranky assertion. I counted over a dozen times (14, I think) when McCain began a sentence or clause with the phrase "I know"--as in "I know how to get America working again" and "I know how to fix this economy." Great, but a lot of voters don't believe you. How about an example or two next time?

McCain faced a tough choice coming into this debate: He could make a dramatic move, which might help close the gap but could also reinforce his unsteadiness. Or he could try to look mature and reassuring, which might ease his perception problem but wouldn't instantly affect the polls. Tonight McCain pulled off an impressive feat: He managed to do nothing particularly dramatic, yet still give the impression that he's old and unsteady. I see very little for him to build on.

--Noam Scheiber