I am certainly no one to talk. When it comes to my work habits, the habitual parts about them are not the parts where I am actually working. I am distractable. My students pay a price: I am behind on my grading — again!
So I empathize totally with Barack Obama.
Yesterday when I was supposed to be grading (actually, I was grading! Just taking a break…) I ran across this article on the London Daily Mail’s MailOnline site. Toby Harnden describes Obama has having trouble focusing on his debate preparation homework in the days leading up to last week’s fateful encounter with Mitt Romney. His staff had taken him off to Henderson, Nevada, away from the media and the demands of office, so he could put in a couple of days’ serious preparation undistracted.
But Obama still got distracted. (Oh, yes, I know how easy it is.) Harnden quotes an unnamed Democrat “close to the campaign”:
President Obama made it clear he wanted to be doing anything else – anything – but debate prep,’ the Democrat said. ‘He kept breaking off whenever he got the opportunity and never really focused on the event.
What could POSSIBLY be distracting in Henderson, Nevada? Among other things, Hoover Dam, sitting there only 20 miles away!
According to Harndon, on the day before the debate a staff member mentioned that Hoover Dam was nearby. Obama decided he’d take another break from debate prep and visit the Dam. He’d never seen it, and this was his chance.
After all, his schedule that day only had one thing on it.
Here I am again. I have grading to do. The same grading I had to do yesterday when I was reading about Obama’s Hoover Dam road trip. Now I am writing about it. So I am definitely not saying I am any better than Obama when it comes to buckling down and getting the hard work done.
But is it possible that the story of Obama’s indiscipline on the day before the debate is more damaging to him than his lackluster performance in the debate?
I watched the debate with about 50 other people at George Fox, preparing to be on a faculty panel afterwards. I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes. At several points Obama seemed to be caught entirely off guard when Romney said perfectly predictable things — like Romney’s promise not to permit a tax cut to add to the deficit; his explanation that his tax cuts would actually reduce the deficit because a) he would set them off against eliminated deductions, and b) the economy would resume growing; or his promise to make sure the rich did not pay a lesser share of the tax burden than they do now. These are obvious comments, anyone who had listened to Romney could see them coming. But Obama clearly could not believe his ears. And he had no response.
But anyone could be caught flat-footed if they just made some poor assumptions in preparing for the debate. Did Obama believe his own campaign ads a little too much? Well, at least he was being consistent! It was embarrassing for him, I thought, and a bit of a black eye for his debate coaches, but not really a big deal. So while I mentioned Obama’s seeming surprise in my remarks to the GF students after the debate, I did not dwell on the topic.
But now it turns out that it wasn’t just poor work by Obama’s debate coaches. It was also Obama goofing off when he was supposed to be doing his homework.
A day or two ago Obama urged his supporters to be obsessive about campaigning right up through election day. Harnden has a photo of Obama sightseeing at Hoover Dam, playing hooky from debate prep — is that what he means by “obsessing” over the campaign?
People can forgive having a bad day at the debate podium. Can they forgive it as readily when the bad day was the result of lack of discipline the day before? Will Obama buckle down to the task now that he’s had a taste of the costs of distraction? And even if he does, will he be able to erase the image of a man with important work to do who can’t always get serious about getting it done?
Which reminds me: I have some grading to do. Somewhere around here.