By Elvin Lim
President Obama had a bad night. The key to succeeding in a presidential debate is recognizing that it is not a parliamentary debate. The rules, the moderator, and even the immediate audience (since they are not permitted to applaud) do not matter. Instead, candidates should bare their souls to the camera lenses. There, magic is made.
Like a legislator used to addressing the president of the chamber and not the audience, Obama was too formal that night. Obama was looking down on his notes too often when Romney was speaking. Silent moments matter too — because candidates can still connect with the audience with their eyes. Even when he was not looking down, Obama was looking at Jim Lehrer rather than at the camera most of the time.
Obama’s advisors must have, rightly, warned Obama not to lose his presidential poise. But they forgot to add that in a two-person setup, a basic modicum of aggressiveness was required. Given that Obama’s countenance is naturally already cool, he would have benefitted from a reminder that he’s back on the campaign trail, president or not. Advisors should tailor-make advice for their candidate. Next round, they should tell Obama to forget that he is president. He should look into the camera at every moment, when his talking and when he is silent, pleading for the vote. Obama should also keep an internal clock, knowing that Jim Lehrer did him no favors last debate by allowing him to ramble longer than the pre-allotted two-minute segments.
Obama tried too hard to take Romney to task on the specific numbers of his tax plan. But there are no scorers in presidential debates. It doesn’t actually matter who won the logical argument; but it does matter who passed the plausibility threshold. Mitt Romney did last night. He kept repeating the $716 billion cut from Medicare and in American politics, saying it is so, makes it so. Nobody cares about what the fact-checkers are saying today. Or about Dodd-Frank or Simpson-Bowles. Or whether rebuttals come the day after. Over 10 million tweets were shared as the debate proceeded last night, many about Big Bird, and most declaring Romney victorious.
Obama’s biggest missed opportunity was on the discussion about the role of the federal government, when Obama normally would have excelled. Romney rightly reached to the sacred scripture of the Republican Party, the Declaration of Independence, referring to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obama failed to counter. The sacred scripture of the Democratic Party is the Preamble of the Constitution. Life, liberty and happiness matter, but so do justice, a more perfect Union, and the general welfare. Bill Clinton knew this when he gave his spectacular speech at the DNC Convention. Obama forgot his roots last night.
In terms of the horse race, this was not a game-changer; it certainly would not change the ground game in the electoral map. There were no forced errors on Obama’s part, just missed opportunities. He should be advised, however, not to go overboard the other way in the next debate, as Al Gore had done in 2000. Obama was wise not to mention the 47 percent comment or offshore bank accounts. That information is already out there and there is no need for the President of the United States to do the dirty work that his surrogates can.
Obama is a quick rebounder. He will be back in the game in the next debate, and we will have a showdown.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.