In the wake of the first Presidential debate, pundits across the nation joined together in a spirit of harmony and universal pomposity and asked: What the heck was wrong with President Obama? Commentators — some with glee and some in despair — noted that, contrary to his reputation as an incisive and forceful orator, the president bummed around onstage, vacillating between distracted and resigned, while his challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, was full of mettle, chewing up the podium like an alpha dog and nipping at the moderator, Jim Lehrer, for coming too near his food bowl. Unexpected performances on both sides.
During their post-game dissection of the president’s performance, talking heads debated whether he had not taken Romney seriously enough or whether he was simply a victim of the reduced oxygen content of high-altitude Denver, the location of the deba(t/cl)e. But what I was thinking, right from the first few moments, when it became clear that Obama had left three-quarters of his attention somewhere else, was: Uh-oh, is Iran about to nuke Israel? Did Greece just pull out of the Euro? Are FBI agents desperately hunting a rogue terrorist spreading weapons-grade anthrax throughout the New York subway system? Something really bad must be happening.
Okay, the next day I woke up and the world was still in one piece, so maybe I was wrong. (Or maybe they just caught the terrorist!) Still, I was surprised than none of the commentators I read or heard suggested they had been thinking the same thing: What could pre-occupy the president so thoroughly during perhaps the most important debate of his life? Sure, maybe a fight with Michelle, but they were both pretty upfront about the fact that the debate fell on their twentieth wedding anniversary, so I didn’t get the feeling they were rowing about that (“You promised me Paris! And we’re in Denver, where they don’t even have proper air!”). And, yes, I am sure there are plenty of other possible distractions — a sick kid, a stopped-up toilet in the East Wing, Netflix claiming they still hadn’t received “The American President” back when Obama was certain he dropped in the outbox two weeks before — but to me it made sense to assume it had something to do with work. And to assume that if it was enough to cause him to forget the words “forty-seven percent”, then it must have been pretty bad. Hence, my mental review of my family’s emergency rations and preparations.
Probably my reaction showed more truth about myself than about Barack Obama. I know that when the pressure is on in my office, it affects me after I leave. I might literally take work home with me, or I might do so more figuratively, in my head. To some extent, that can actually be advantageous: the change of environment can prompt increased efficiency or creativity, and there have been plenty of times when a brainstorming chat with my brilliant wife has helped me form a connection or a solution to a sticky problem. But no matter how committed a person is to his job, no matter how much he loves what he is doing, he still has to draw some boundaries to keep it contained.
It is more than just refreshing oneself, although that is of course important; as Jack Torrence once wrote, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” (Okay, more than once.) It’s also about roles. “Worker” is an important role, one that has to be played well for real fulfillment, but it’s far from the only role we all have. We might also have “spouse”, “friend”, “parent”, “volunteer”, “neighbor”, “teammate”, “blogger” . . . It’s a list limited only by imagination, but, as with work, real fulfillment depends on learning to play all the roles we love well. And sometimes, it’s hard to be a good, say, “dad”, when most of our attention is still focused on honing our performance in a role that maybe should have ended at 5 p.m. If the President of the United States can make time for his kids, the rest of us should be able to, too.
That’s a lesson I often have to re-teach myself, so maybe that’s why I thought it was playing out for Obama Wednesday night. I should have known better — of course, if there were a real crisis taking place, the president would have acted completely naturally, to keep the American public from suspecting and panicking! So pay attention in two weeks, at the next debate. If Obama is back on his game, acting is if everything is great . . . just make sure you have enough toilet paper and batteries to last a while.