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.

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