2012 US Election, Ray D'Cruz

Where to from here for the Presidents’ debate strategy?

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

There was something about President Barack Obama in the first presidential debate against Governor Romney that reminded me of his third presidential debate against Senator John McCain. In my adjudication on the 2008 debate (admittedly a dissenting one) I commented: “Obama’s calmness bordered on indifference. Obama’s manner seemed to suggest he’d had the debate before and wanted to move on. That might be right, but here was a debate to be won.

Perhaps these were his emotions in the first debate of 2012. That same annoyance an employee has when asked to reapply for their current job. Everything about Obama’s display on the night indicated that he didn’t want to be there, from his opening remarks about his anniversary to his body language to his inability to raise a glove against a Romney platform that is vulnerable. The main problem is that voters may have perceived his indifference as a lack of passion for the job. As an employer there are two things you look for when assessing a candidate: skills and motivation. It’s hard to get the job if you don’t seem motivated, even if it is just a perception.

There is a silver lining for Obama though. Over 70 million people are likely to tune into the second presidential debate, so he gets another chance. Obama will get an opportunity to win back those voters who were persuaded toward Romney’s pitch in the first debate. If they were swayed once, they can be swayed again.

Obama will also be buoyed by Joe Biden’s strong performance in the Vice Presidential Debate. Biden was let off the chain, and reverted to type. As Alex Massie, Spectator columnist and former debater tweeted, “I like Biden. I’ve met his type in 100 Irish bars. And he’s kicking Ryan’s ass”. Biden pulled it off because it was the real Joe. Obama will find a style that cuts a compromise between the Irish pugilist, the law professor and the president. The bottom line is, it will be different.

It should have not come to this point. His lacklustre performance in accepting his own nomination at the Democratic National Convention was a warning. It was understandable that he stayed away from the hope and change vision that characterised 2008, but he didn’t exactly rally the troops. Indeed, he was overshadowed by a man who managed to talk up the achievements of the last four years, attack the Republican agenda and look to the future: former President Bill Clinton. Clinton stole the show. Michelle Obama was next best. Debates are different to speeches, but the warning signs were there.

Despite the media focus on manner, the biggest repair job may actually relate to his method: the way in which he organised and structured his arguments.

In the first debate, Obama struggled to communicate succinctly. This was a stark contrast to the 2008 debates, where Obama concisely and clearly laid out brief, multi-point plans for each issue. As my colleague Neill-Harvey Smith said in his adjudication “Barack Obama explained, explained, explained in long, broken sentences, delivered with a curious lack of energy.” Consequently, his attacks on Romney were hazy and his self-defence muted.

In 2008, Obama was the challenger. He didn’t have to defend his record and he was able to dismiss Senator McCain summarily by linking the veteran senator to the deeply unpopular President George W. Bush.  That left plenty time to talk about the future. In 2012, Obama is the incumbent and carries extra weight. Presidential Debates ask a lot of incumbents. With limited time available, an incumbent has to argue three propositions: (1) the right decisions have been made over the last four years; (2) there is a good plan in place for the next four years; and (3) the opposing plan and candidate is flawed. Is it any wonder that incumbents have had a poor record in opening debates, before, presumably, they rethink their approach?

One extraordinary aspect of Obama’s performance in the first debate was that he was granted more speaking time by the moderator yet he seemed to say so much less that Romney. If ever there is a sign that his method was poor, that’s it! The other sign was the sheer volume of targets missed. Biden was brazen in his pursuit of these missed targets, coming back to the “47%” on at least three occasions. Obama will be more subtle, but cannot afford to be too subtle. He needs to organise himself well and hit targets.

In the remaining debates, Obama must be lean and efficient as he ticks the following boxes: defending his record in overall terms as well on specifics, advancing a plan for the coming four years, attacking the Republican philosophy and attacking Romney, the man. That will be a challenge in the one and two minute allotments allowed, but that’s what he’s got to do, and it can be done.

Here’s a sample 90-second response, on the sort of question Obama is likely to get in the second presidential debate, conducted in a town hall format. It leaves room the judicious use of statistics that would bring the overall response time to the two-minutes allotted.

Question: How can we trust either of you to reduce the deficit? Both parties say they will but when they get into office they do the opposite. 

Response: “Between being elected president and being sworn into office, we saw the biggest global economic collapse since the great depression. We had to put a floor under that collapse to secure jobs and homes and families. So we acted decisively with a stimulus package that has increased our deficit. But ask yourself what would have happened to this country if we’d allowed GM and others to go to the wall, as Governor Romney advocated? Governor Romney now advocates the Bush plan that got us into this mess: reduce taxes on the wealthy, reduce regulation and pursue conflict in the Middle East. The only difference is that he wants to close tax loopholes, but he won’t tell you what they are. How trustworthy is that? Remember the Republicans inherited a surplus in 2000. Eight years later I inherited a [figure] deficit and an economy on the verge of depression. Now we want to keep building our economy. It will take time. But we’ve saved millions of jobs – the jobs trend today is positive – and we’re going to create millions more by focusing on the middle class. Our plan is [enumerating with fingers] middle class tax relief, affordable health care, better schools, affordable college and no more costly wars. By focussing on the middle class and small business we’ll bring our economy back to surplus. 

Within this response, the President has provided a blunt assessment of the situation he inherited, reminded the audience about who left him the mess and linked Romney to it. He has gone onto attack Romney’s history and plans. Obama also presents his substantive case for re-election with a concise, clear, enumerated plan. He’s done, briefly, what incumbents have to do in these debates and what Clinton did so successfully (admittedly over 50 minutes) at the Democratic National Convention.

Importantly, while the response works to the President’s strengths, he has actually answered the question. There is a risk that Obama debate strategists will try to script too many of his responses, and in doing so ignore the questioner. If candidates are see to twist the question to suit their preferred talking points it will hurt them in this format. You ignore the audience at your peril in these town hall debates, as George Bush Snr found out in 1992. More specific questions will allow the President to use more specific evidence. The Vice Presidential Debate went a little overboard on statistics, but the right ones at the right times can be compelling.

The attacks on his opponent will be a balancing act in the final few debates. He must in his responses zone in on key issues, such as the failure of the Republican ticket to identify the loopholes that they claim will help them balance the budget. A good debater would focus on this issue relentlessly, recognizing that much of the team line that the Republicans are advancing around economic management could be brought undone by a series of uncomfortable debate moments on this subject. A second issue would have to be Romney’s various positions on healthcare. If Obama can raise these substantial issues then within the body these comments he can make some targeted personal attacks without coming across as too negative and “unpresidential”.

If the primary purpose of presidential debates is to inform voters, then substance should be the main game. But method, as outlined above, is really what helps crystallize the difference between the candidates. With great method, the audience can grasp things quickly and remember them easily. And even if they forget the details, they remember that feeling of assurance that goes with listening to someone who seems to have a plan. Like any incumbent, Obama has a lot to lose. After his first debate, he also has a lot to gain.

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