If you believe Barack Obama distinguished himself favorably in the first debate, you won't like the following rampage one bit. Those who judge debates on quality of information and truthfulness might have kept different score. But in the realm of making an impression, and in winning the lightning-quick emotional judgments that people make of each other, Obama suffered from ineloquence, hesitation, rambling, old material (the grandmother again, really?), and inadvertent signals of weakness.
Obama's painful defeat was foreshadowed by the president's first response, when he utterly ignored moderator Jim Lehrer's question and delivered a prepared opening statement. All political debaters bring prepared material to the podium. But without the slightest reference to the question in framing his answer, or allusion to Lehrer's topic within the answer, Obama's opening segment bristled with nonchalant disrespect for the audience. And Romney trounced him by buckling right down to his first volley of highly energized and precisely relevant bullet points.
The bizarre opening play could be forgotten if the president had snapped out of his rote recitation quickly thereafter, but Obama's entire performance conveyed the impression of a candidate whose staff had failed to inform him that the event was a debate. He appeared flummoxed by questions, baffled and wounded by his opponent's attacks, peevish, and overwhelmed by Romney's passion.
The body language was as unpresidential as it gets. Obama looked exhausted, and perhaps he was -- the man is running the country and managing responses to world affairs, while also struggling to keep his job. Governor Romney's only job is to prepare for campaign events. So it was understandable when Obama appeared to be performing a chore -- scowling, withdrawing, stuttering, going through motions.
Still, his job for 90 minutes was to perform in a nationally broadcast TV show that serves an important function in the democracy. If this had been an audition for a dramatic role as president, President Obama wouldn't get a call-back. He was sluggish; his responses amorphous and dissolute. Romney was quick and precise.
Memo to Obama campaign staff: Get a grip on your man and eliminate the following habits:
- "Wanna." First of all, he should stop saying "wanna" entirely. Failing to pronounce words is unpresidential. More important, in a debate, saying you want to do something is weak compared to saying you will do something. Obama is accused of failure. His assertions should be filled with "I did" and "I will do." Romney did not "want" anything in this debate. He intended. That is a presidential attitude.
- "Four years ago." This is whining. Whining is also unpresidential. Everyone knows Obama was elected at a difficult historical moment. Complaining affirms accusations of failure.
- Nodding. It is inadvisable to nod your head when the opposing candidate is blasting you mercilessly! Humility is fine, and so is acknowledgment that you're listening. But on TV, it looks like you are agreeing.
- Tighten the hell up. Does the president believe the eloquence myth? Because although Barack Obama is an outstanding writer, and a great orator when working from a script, he is not often an eloquent man off-script. Viewers had time to check scores on ESPN while he gathered his woolen thoughts in long preludes to halting replies. The president's sentences were strung together in wide, spacious nets of speech that allowed the viewer's attention to slip through and crash to the ground. Obama worked the game like a slow pitcher in baseball who walks halfway to the infield and back between pitches, trying to break the batter's rhythm. In this case, it just gave Romney time to reload.
- "I believe." Less theory, more declamation, please. The president's most potentially powerful remarks were undermined at the end by the repeated weak-kneed disclaimer: "That's not what I believe." Against Romney's passionate engagement and purposeful language, Obama's intellectual musing sounded as if a political science professor had taken the president's place on stage.
Obama's listless closing statement might be explained as a natural consequence of the thrashing he had just endured. Here, and at other times, the president seemed to credit Americans with the progress made during the first term. That is flattering, and of course everyone wants a president who doesn't get too carried away with himself. But constant deflection of credit invites people to muse over this question: "Well, then, what do we need you for?"
Here's hoping the president gets more sleep before the next debate.