Obama Interview: His Disastrous First Debate Was a ‘Hawaii Moment’

In an exclusive interview, President Barack Obama let TIME in on an inside joke between him and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

TIME interviews President Obama in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, 2012. From left: Rick Stengel, White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer

A lot of people have offered a lot of explanations for why the President famously bombed his first debate appearance with Mitt Romney on Oct. 3. The president was too polite; he was unprepared; he wasn’t acclimated to the altitude. But the most mystifying explanation came from Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who told TIME managing editor Rick Stengel earlier this year that the President had had “a Hawaii Moment.”

(PHOTOS: 48 Hours With President Obama)

So when Stengel, along with TIME executive editor Radhika Jones and White House correspondent Michael Scherer, sat down with the President in the Oval Office for TIME’s Person of the Year cover story, he had to ask what Emanuel had meant. In an excerpt from the interview, Obama explained:

What he was probably referring to—he and I, when we were in the Oval Office sometimes and the banks looked like they were melting down and the Afghan war is raging and the auto industry is on the verge of collapse, and we’d sit here at the end of the day and we’d have little fantasies about us taking our families and just moving to Hawaii and opening up a T-shirt shack on the North Shore, and we’d just sell T-shirts and maybe smoothies and sit there and watch the waves. So that might have been the reference he was making.

Obama, who called worried supporters and donors after the debate to reassure them he’d do better next time (“This is on me,” he repeatedly said, according to the New York Times), also told TIME that one of the reasons the debate stood out was that the rest of the campaign went so well. “We just didn’t screw up a lot this time,” he said. “We didn’t make a lot of mistakes.” However, the former college lecturer admitted that the televised presidential debate format just wasn’t his strong suit.

But part of it also just has to do with the fact that that particular format has never been a strength of mine. I don’t approach most interactions with people trying to insult them or show how stupid they are. And that’s how you score points in those things. It’s a very artificial construct. It’s theater.

But the bottom line is that I didn’t communicate effectively with the American people in that debate what was at stake, and so it was important for me to remind myself that as artificial as that format may be, whenever I’ve got 60 to 70 million people watching, I’ve got to make sure that they understand what is at stake.

Read the full version of TIME’s interview with the President here.

WATCH: The President’s Favorite Phrase: A Video Mash-Up

17 comments
blakeNaustin
blakeNaustin

A common far left tactic.  Personal attacks and name calling when you don't have anything intelligent to say.

youcantfoolme
youcantfoolme

WOW....our potus daydreaming and fantasizing no wonder nothing ever gets done. Well.....at least we all know now the next four years will be. Taking up donations to send him to his very own island somewhere in the pacific......

Lockgod
Lockgod

Hawaii moments come when the interceptions outnumber the passes, and the choom smoke stains the ceiling of the Lincoln Bedroom, and nothing is impossible because nothing is real.

Face it, the guy's a pothead.  

blakeNaustin
blakeNaustin

Master divider and deceiver.  Compulsive liar.  Big government, out of control spending, massive deficits, control freak.  A man who has accomplished absolutely nothing positive.  Half of the American people are so naive!

msmattos
msmattos

good answer mr Prez!  as ususal!!!! ur the best!!!

busybody
busybody

btw, why are you still talking about that? Old news.

busybody
busybody

Nobody brings up the fact that Mr. Obama looked entirely exhausted. His eyes were sunken in and I was actually worried about him. He was simply exhausted. Understandable.

StephenDaugherty
StephenDaugherty

The irony, with a name like yours, is that you were likely fooled quite a bit.  If you think nobody with a job like Obama's fantasized about being somewhere else at some point, you're fooling yourself.  Real problem is, the guy you probably did support (or didn't do much to protest) had quite a few too many Texas ranch moments.  Problem is, they were real!

zeibodique
zeibodique

Well Fool, why don't you go scope out some islands. Maybe and just maybe with extreme luck, you'll have a "Castaway" moment and we'll all be happy.

StephenDaugherty
StephenDaugherty

Why should I face it, beyond your self-confident drivel?  Internet's full of people with nothing better to do than unload their preformed prejudice in the comments sections.  If the President was a pothead, I guarantee you nobody in your party would be as intimidated and fearful of him as they are.  Potheads don't run the campaigns he runs, which get every state but two that he got last time, despite a bad economy and a hostile opposition party.

StephenDaugherty
StephenDaugherty

Because if they weren't, you'd have to explain to yourself why your own people are so darn unpopular.

And that would go against your fundamental assumption that your movement is ever popular, and only bad press leads to bad results.  Let me tell you what your words tell me, and everybody else: you didn't have the guts to let Bush lose to Kerry to end that era of error, so now you will do the only thing that can quickly recover (You think) the tattered reputation of your party: blaming Obama for all the things he got wrong.

Lockgod
Lockgod

@StephenDaugherty Ahh!  One of the 47 percent!  Obama didn't RUN the campaign.  Axelrod did.  And the president is a certified, documented, pictured, attested pot head.  Go to Google, and call "images."  Then put in "Obama Pothead."  Dozens of pictures of YOUR president toked to the gills.  My favorite is the VW buss with the smoke so thick it looks like it's on fire.  I've never known a college age addict who gave it up in later life.  Judging by the first debate, Mr. Obama isn't one of the few who managed to give it up, either.

Lockgod
Lockgod

@StephenDaugherty He's a pothead. and the anointed of the press  Remember Bush? He got drunk in college and pillaged for it.  Obama SOLD pot for pocket change and used so much he was notorious.  There are PICTURES of his VAN with pot smoke pouring out all the windows!   

No, he's not my president, he's an empty headed empty chair in a do nothing care taking government.   I suspect you identify with him rather strongly.

StephenDaugherty
StephenDaugherty

No, according to election results, you're one of the 47%.  But seriously, your common sense needs a tune-up if you think leading with that comments a political winner.

You just got to think of it in terms of him being somehow diminished in his capacity.  Why is that?  Because you can't google "President John McCain", or "President Mitt Romney?"

Obama is your President, too, and somehow he keeps on getting the better of your people.  If, in the unlikely event what you're saying is true, and Obama is still a pothead, then what are the Republicans doing, sniffing glue and smoking Meth?