Why I Think Obama Choked During Last Night’s Debate

Was Obama reacting to past trauma during his poor performance at last night’s Presidential debate?

There have been many explanations offered for Obama’s poor performance last night, everything from overconfidence to altitude sickness. One of the most astute observations I have read about Obama’s demeanor last night came from Ann Lamont who in her Facebook post said that the President looked “diminished.” That, I thought, hit the nail on the head. He was not blowing it; something had made him feel and act as if he is not who he is: an effective leader, a charismatic speaker, and the firm holder of the moral high-ground in this nation’s ongoing conversation about social justice. Lamont suggested that Obama looked and acted like something traumatic had just happened to him before he went on stage.

I believe that she may be right, that Obama may have been reacting to trauma, but not necessarily to trauma that happened right before he went on stage. I believe that it is possible that he was having a trauma response to what psychologists call “triggers.”

Part of my speculation is based on what happened in the day leading up to the debate. Fox and Drudge released an old video of Obama talking about race, and proceeded to paint our president as an angry black man who harbors a near pathological desire for revenge on white people. They were priming their audience and conservatives in general to see Obama’s actions as that of an angry black man. They knew that their audience would be far more likely to view even the most innocuous comments as racially charged or hateful toward white people if the issue was fresh in everyone’s minds.

They also knew that Obama would understand the ramifications of having conservatives primed to hear him as an angry black man. It was a classic psyche-out. Rather than just being two politicians having a debate about ideas, the debate was now a black man defending himself against a hostile white man while trying to make it very clear that he bears no hostility toward white people.

I am also basing my speculation on a basic understanding of how race works in our country. I would give the same odds to the sun rising tomorrow morning as I would to Obama having been traumatized by racism. It must have been very difficult to be a bi-racial child at the time Obama was growing up. At the time of his birth, it was still illegal for his parents to get married in some states. I am a few years younger than Obama, and I remember the casual racism that I was taught.

Those wounds of racial trauma have been seen repeatedly during Obama’s presidency and during his reelection campaign. Presidential campaigns are traumatic enough as Ann Romney has been happy to tell us. She has told us how hard it is to hear her husband criticized for his ideas and for his character flaws of dishonesty and callousness. How much harder must it have been for Obama to hear his wife criticized, to see and hear the horrible parodies of her as ugly, classless, and un-Patriotic? How traumatizing must it have been to get through the birther travesty?

There is another thing that makes me think that Obama may have been having a trauma response: the way that Mitt Romney spoke to and about him. Today on the MSNBC show Now with Alex Wagner, Michael Eric Dyson said that Mitt Romney was “sonning” Obama. In other words, Romney was so condescending and covertly bullying that it brings to mind the bad old days when rich powerful men like Romney only addressed black men as “son.” What he describes is a situation in which a black man could easily have years of deep trauma re-triggered.

The problem with responding to “sonning” is the same as feminists face when they are subjected to “honeying.” How do you respond to such subtle and seemingly benign bigotry without making yourself seem like an angry black man or a hysterical woman? Further, addressing “sonning” and “honeying” requires that the victims of sexism and racism acknowledge that they have been harmed without being perceived as victims, a word which has been coopted into being synonymous with “moral weakness.”

I cannot tell you for sure what was going on in Obama’s head, but I can tell you what I have experienced. Despite the fact that I am painfully introverted, I was at one time lauded as one of the best public speakers in my discipline. I was able to project charisma, answer questions and objections with ease, and keep my audience with me to the very end. I connect with people in a way that made them want to connect back. More than half of my Facebook friends are people who met me on speaking engagements and wanted to keep up with me. 

All of that changed a few years ago when I went to speak to a friend’s class at my alma mater. During the question session, a young man was belligerent, dismissive, and rude. I became angry and responded firmly. I was by no means out of control, but I was also not conciliatory. When he continued to be outright hostile, I asked him to leave. He left the class and went straight to the Dean’s office and filed a complaint. The college asked the professor who had invited me to apologize, and I was unofficially banned from being a guest speaker. I went from being one of their stars to being persona non grata in a day. The session was recorded, so it was quite clear to everyone that I had done nothing more than stand my ground, and done so in the face of an abusive student. I am quite sure that had I been a man, the young man would have never treated me with such contempt to begin with, and that any response a man would have given to such contemptuousness short of physical violence would have been applauded. In fact, I am pretty sure that the college would have apologized to me had I done the same thing as a man. But, I am a woman, the college was in the rural south, and the boy who tried to bully me was the son of the police chief. What was truly shocking to me was that my friend did not even verbalize support for me privately. Instead, she talked about how fascinated she was by what had “pushed my buttons.”

Since then, I have become an uneven speaker. Most of the time, I perform beyond even my own expectations. But every so often something triggers a memory of not just the incident that got me banned from my alma mater, but also of the degradation and humiliation I have experienced from decades of sexism. And like Obama, I become diminished, I stumble, and everyone wonders aloud what went wrong. The answer is the same for me as it is for Obama: For a moment, we responded to the situation as it really is, a world filled with the hostility and double-binds of racism and sexism, not to the world as we all want it to be.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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