2012 US Election, Colm Flynn

Reflecting on the First Presidential Debate; Planning for the Second

Opinion by Colm Flynn

Expectations going into the First Presidential Debate were very different for the two candidates. On one hand we had President Obama with a reputation of being an articulate, passionate, youthful speaker.  On the other Governor Romney who everyone expected to just be happy to avoid any serious mistakes.

That’s not the way the debate materialised and the clear winner, both in my opinion and in the opinion of the other judges on this site was Romney.  Why was this?  What did Romney do that so turned things around? The reason for this turnaround lies with the failings of Obama more than the success of Romney.  In three main areas Obama finds himself on new ground and he is struggling to come to terms with this.

Selling the future beats selling the present

In 2008 a 47 year old Senator Obama was up against the 72 year old Senator McCain. It was a fresh faced vibrant young candidate up against a candidate who at times looked every bit the man who had endured years of tough military and political service behind him.   Over the course of the debates and the election it became apparent that the choice was between men of different generations and in the end the voters opted for a new generation.  This is the way it had been throughout Obama’s political career.  The young candidate who represented the future. However this week that young versus old factor disappeared.  While the age gap between the candidates is 14 years the four years in office have not been kind to Obama and you would often have put both speakers in their 50s. Obama looked tired and sounded weary. This is also Obama’s last election. He is no longer the future. At best he is the present. Republicans will argue he is the past.  Obama has never had to sell the present. He has always sold a vision of a shining future just over the hill.

When the hunter becomes the hunted

Also in 2008 Obama represented change and a new way forward. McCain was, unfairly, tarnished with the Bush legacy and was often forced to defend positions not of his making. This time it is Obama who is forced to defend his position and it is Romney who is arguing for change.  Obama represents the establishment and Romney has the manoeuvrability to present new ideas.  Time and again Obama had to defend his policies.  He could attack the alternatives of his opponent but for the first time he was arguing for policies that are already in place, or at least started and well discussed in the media. He had to defend what was happening now and could not argue for a change that could be just vague enough as to appeal to the majority of voters who could shape what that change would mean for them in their own minds.

Practice makes a difference

Finally Obama looked like a man who had not debated in four years. In contrast Romney has debated 22 times in recent months to win the Republican party nomination. Romney has been on the campaign trail answering questions and delivering off the cuff speeches. Obama has spent the last four years in a stressful and time consuming job largely reading from tele-prompters. And it showed.  Stylistically Romney was much smoother. The arguments flowed from his mouth easily, rapidly and fully formed.  Obama, in contrast, was slow and visibly contemplative in forming his responses. He used a lot more crutch words like “ah” and “am”. He knew what he wanted to say but at times the words wouldn’t come. He returned to his days as a college professor when he could slowly and deliberately weave a point together over several minutes. While it’s a reflection on politics to suggest that a professorial tone is a bad thing, in the cut and thrust of a televised leaders’ debate, it’s not the right manner.

What Obama needs to do

So what needs to be done in the two weeks before the next debate?  Firstly Obama is lucky that he has two weeks. His team need to drill him repeatedly before the debate to get him thinking rapidly enough to be able to engage with Romney. This is not something you can just switch on. You have to play to be match fit.

Once they have him thinking at debate pace then they need to get him focused on simplifying his message.  The points should be snappy and quick. The proposals should be easy to understand both in terms of how they will work but also in terms of how they will benefit the voter watching.  The voter can’t grasp “a trillion dollars” but they will comprehend the enormity of the number of it’s related to their own financial situation.

It is concerning that Obama’s debate prep team may not be up to the job. How could they advised him to open with the soppy line about his anniversary being the most important point of the evening when he was about to get hammered on jobs and the deficit. Obama’s message in 2008 was that improving the lives of the people of America was the most important thing to him. He needed to pick up where he left off. His opening message should have been a simple one: his policies are working and he needs to be given the time to complete the job. Openings leave an impression, and this was left the wrong one.

What Romney needs to do

In contrast Romney was match fit and focused on his message.  He had a number of prepared arguments drilled into him.  The number of times his answers were framed in a one, two, three format is a sign that these were answers that had been worked on by his team and he had used them over and over and over in debate practice until they became second nature to him. He got the balance right between positive and negative argumentation too, which is an important balance to strike as challengers can often come across as excessively negative and carping.

Having said this, the Romney’s team must not rest on their laurels.  Wednesday night was an isolated debate to camera and that suited Romney.  The next debate is a “town hall” format where the candidates interact  with the audience in the room; Obama did this well in 2008. In contrast it does not seem to be one of Romney’s strengths.  While Romney was able to tell stories of meeting ordinary people on Wednesday night, and it worked, in the next debate he will actually be in the same room as them.  His team need to focus on his interaction with people.  His weakness has always been that he is a man of privilege and wealth with no understanding of the problems of ordinary people.  He needs to engage with people in a way that seems comfortable and natural.  The 1992 Clinton-Bush town hall debate provides a very good indication of what to do (Clinton) and what not to do (Bush). Romney should also except that Obama will be more aggressive, after the barrage of criticism that has been levelled at his lacklustre performance.

There are two weeks to the next Presidential debate, with a Vice Presidential Debating along the way. If Obama performs as badly as he did this week and if Romney comes across as a man of the people then this could be looked back on as an election where the debates helped change the result.

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