2012 US Election, Andy Hume, View opinion pieces

Advising Obama: what the President needs to do to win the debates

In the first of two opinion pieces, Andy Hume, debate coach and former world debating champion, provides advice to the candidates on what they need to do to win the upcoming US presidential debates. First up, it’s President Obama.

Mr. President,

In 2008, you were generally felt to have had the better of your election debates against Senator McCain, and there is no reason why the same cannot be true this time around as well. In polling terms, you are on course for a narrow but decisive victory in November. On one level, this means that drawing the debates, and coming out of the final encounter with your lead intact, will be a perfectly satisfactory outcome. However, it would be unwise to rely on this in advance of your first clash. For one thing, your weakest moments in the 2008 debates came when Senator McCain showed more aggression and bite than you did, and while not all observers responded well to his manner, it sometimes left you looking detached and disengaged by comparison.

More fundamentally, the current media climate is unfavorable to your opponent, and all the talk is of how he needs a “game change” moment to reverse the polarity of the campaign. This may work to lower expectations to the extent that even a narrow victory in the first debate could shift the media narrative in his favor. Playing for a draw is, as the Europeans say, the surest way to ensure defeat.

Election debates often serve to crystallize and solidify voter perceptions of candidates, rather than changing them outright. Voters tend to regard Governor Romney as smart and competent, but also out of touch and somewhat unlikeable. You need to try and draw attention to these flaws, from the job losses he supposedly caused at Bain Capital to the missteps he has made over the past few weeks of campaigning. But your challenge is going to be to do this without being seen as divisive or stooping to negative personal attacks. You have to engage and land punches on your opponent without coming across as unpresidential. That may be your toughest challenge this autumn.

The first debate will be devoted solely to domestic policy. The economy is an area where your opponent will mount a strong attack, but it is also the issue of most concern to the voters, so there is no point in trying to sidestep this potential weakness in your record. Instead, I recommend that you go on the offensive, particularly on tax. Romney’s tax plan would cut taxes for the very wealthiest at a time when ordinary voters remain fearful of their financial prospects. Remind them of that. While Romney may focus on jobs, you need to reframe this issue to be about who can be trusted to create jobs and care for the unemployed. This may play into the perceptions about Romney’s “job destruction” record at Bain Capital and his general lack of empathy for those who are in need of government support. Your opponent will ask the viewers the same question that Ronald Reagan did in 1980 – are you better off than you were four years ago? He will attempt to turn the debates into a referendum on your record. Don’t let him. Defend your record where you need to – on healthcare, on bailing out GM – but keep the focus on the next four years, not the last four, and consistently draw attention to the failings of your challenger and his party. You will inevitably come under pressure at points in this debate, but even a narrow win will be a good result given the economic circumstances.

One technique which you used to your advantage four years ago was to set out your plans in a well structured and clearly signposted way – for example, in the first debate, enumerating “four principles” for bailing out failing industries. This allowed you to distil a potentially complex issue into a simple package which viewers would have no difficulty understanding; more generally, it helped you come across as someone with a clear and organized plan for how to turn America round. This served you well, and I recommend that you adopt a similar approach again where appropriate.

Your manner can sometimes come across as aloof and distant. Your considerable oratorical gifts do not always translate to the smaller stage of a debate, and at times in the 2008 encounters you looked less than comfortable. You need to work on this side of your presentation, particularly as your challenger also has problems with his manner. It is notable that your strongest performance four years ago came in the “town hall” debate where you took questions from the audience and were free to get out from behind your podium and wander around. If you can successfully come across as relaxed, confident and in control of the facts without letting them dominate your answers, you will score well with the undecideds.

The final debate, on October 22nd, will be devoted to foreign policy. Perhaps unusually for the Democratic Party, this is an area in which you are generally felt to hold a clear lead over your rival. Emphasize that you have kept your campaign pledges on Afghanistan and Iraq. Try to paint your opponent as reckless and untested on foreign affairs, overly keen to take us into confrontation with China and Russia, and perhaps even war with Iran. You shouldn’t be afraid to invoke the spectre of the second President Bush in this regard. And I feel confident that you’ll find time at some stage to mention the order which you gave to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. This is your chance to remind people that you are the President of the United States. Take it.


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