President Obama's people kept expectations low for the first debate of his reelection campaign. With two more debates forthcoming, Obama understood it's not a good idea to put all your ammunition into the first debate, possibly win big, and then head downhill from there.
It's the old primacy-vs.-recency question: Is it better to lead off strong or lead-up-to strong? What are viewers most likely to appreciate and remember? A powerful finish is often best, along the lines of "What have you done for me lately?"
Next comes the issue of rising expectations. If friends had told you that MI3 was the best Mission Impossible movie ever, you'd have entered the theater expecting to be dazzled. If that didn't happen, the inevitable result would have been disappointment. The same holds for a series of debates. If the first one turns out to be the candidate's best performance, disappointment is bound to follow the others.
From this vantage point, the president may have achieved what he wanted in the first debate. If so, he deserves credit for sticking to the plan. On the other hand, even when effectively employing a recency strategy and expectation management, certain points of any debate -- first or last -- can leave lasting impressions. The president could use more coaching on those.
One basic no-no during a televised debate is to nod your head frequently -- or even more than a few times. In personal conversation, nods may be used effectively to mean, "I hear you." But in a televised debate, they convey agreement, pure and simple. President Obama appeared to be agreeing with far too many of Governor Romney's positions, including those we know to be vastly different from Obama's own.
The president tended to look down when Romney was speaking. While this was a merciful relief from all the nodding, it conveyed demureness, disinterest and discomfort. Eye contact with your opponent and with the camera is crucial to making your case with viewers. It indicates confidence. Looking away too often, and especially downward, dampens the sense of conviction you want to share -- that sense of knowing your stuff and being committed to it.
In terms of actual substance, the president ignored one opportunity after another to take Romney to task, choosing instead to remain characteristically calm. Coolness under pressure is an admirable quality, but a lack of passion is another matter entirely -- and many potential Obama supporters were undoubtedly looking for more oratorical blows to be landed.
Voters who support Obama need to see him want to be reelected. They want him to show that passion and desire. He isn't standing at that podium only for himself. He represents millions of Americans who believe this election is a choice of whether to take America farther down the road toward a diminished middle class or to strengthen the threatened middle class and pull more people out of poverty to join it.
You have to hand it to Governor Romney. He practiced, he was prepared and he conveyed more heart than he's usually able to muster. He was there to win, and if he didn't, it was not for lack of trying. He demonstrated commitment to his views whether stated vaguely or not. He looked presidential. It appears that Romney's people positioned him far more effectively in terms of camera angles and interaction with the lens than did the president's team. He looked more determined than Obama, and yet did not slip into bullying -- which would have negated his other accomplishments during the debate. All in all, Romney did well.
For the next debate, expectations won't be as high for the president. That will be the time to deliver more in both style and substance -- to take his opponent down a few pegs by strongly driving home key persuasive points. But Obama still has a job cut out for him: To let the American people know in no uncertain terms that he is the best candidate for the job, fighting for them -- and not about to let Mitt Romney stand in his way.
Kathleen is the author of The Secret Handshake and It's All Politics and blogs at comebacksatwork.com.