THE BLOG
10/04/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Dude, Check the Calendar Next Time: Quick Debating Tips for Barack Obama

Sometimes political campaigns get in the way of life.

The most heart-rending example of that was when candidate Barack Obama paused to remember his grandmother after her death, days before the election.That pursed lip, the single tear he wiped was terribly moving because it genuine. It was not manufactured for television.

But when President Obama tossed out that "happy anniversary, sweetie" bon bon to Michelle
it made me cringe. It was a very personal moment that was gratuitously being offered up for an aww-shucks effect. For the 90 minutes that followed he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on that stage with Mitt Romney and moderator Jim Lehrer. Who can blame him? Romney and romance have little in common other than the first three letters. But didn't Obama know it was the big 2-0 anniversary when he agreed to the schedule? (If he didn't, the man has bigger problems on the home front than the unemployment rate.)

I don't know who was advising Barack Obama but it was obviously not our debating coach from my old missionary school in Calcutta. So let me channel him for a moment for the POTUS' benefit.

Stand up straight, man. Obama has a problem of sometimes appearing a little condescending and snooty, a Mr Smarty Pants who knows the answer before you asked the question. During the 2008 debates he was accused of looking down on John McCain. During those primaries he appeared patronizing to Hillary Clinton. Obviously his team knew that Mitt Romney was going into the debate as an underdog and they didn't want Obama coming across as the bully. But that doesn't mean he needs to look like a chastened schoolboy. He spent most of the time when he was not talking with his head down as if he was being punished. And he kept nodding his head as if agreeing with the points Romney was making. (Romney, on the other hand, kept a smile stitched on to this face as if his life depended on it.)

Stand by your record. Barack Obama has a problem tooting his own horn. No one likes a braggart but when you are the incumbent president, it's incumbent on you to remind people about what you have done right. No one knows that as well as you do. People have notoriously short memories. They don't remember what they had for dinner last week. Obama is presiding over a weak economy and his message of hope is essentially this "I know it's bad but hey, it's not as edge-of-the-cliff bleak as it was when I took over." That's not the sunniest of messages but he has to sell his accomplishments not just recite statistics dully.

People like stories. How did Mitt Romney, always known to have a hard time connecting with ordinary people, suddenly pull out the oldest debating trick to put faces to policy? Tie it to the stories of ordinary people. Yes, people can relate to that schoolteacher in Las Vegas or that jobless man in Ohio. Obama used to be very good at that - talking about the personal stories of people he met. But he hardly brought any of them up to make his points. He stuck to numbers. Nobody remembers numbers as well as they remember stories.

Keep a zinger handy. Like a cough lozenge you never know when you will need it. Obama is an orator. He's never been that great a debater. He hmmms and hesitates too much. You can see the wheels turning in his head. That's not a bad thing - a thinking man's politician. But it means in a debate's point versus point format, he sounds like he's fumbling. Give him the bully pulpit and he can soar. But a debate needs an occasional crack, a zinger that comes out from the left side. That's the moment that will get repeated on television. Neither delivered that. No "there you go again, Mr President" - Ronald Reagan's famous jab at Jimmy Carter. The best jab Obama took was not at Romney, but at the moderator, an equally tired-looking Jim Lehrer when he quipped that he had five seconds until Lehrer interrupted him.

Don't let your opponent define himself. Romney's biggest problem has been Romney. Throughout the campaign he has to fight with ghosts of Romneys past. He is the shape-shifter who people think will say anything he needs to say in order to win. And he did just that on television coming across as an old school affable cut-taxes, no big-government pro-small business Republican. And Obama let him define himself as a sort of bipartisan, no-nonsense businessman. He didn't use Romney to go after Romney. Other than complaining Romney's proposals all keep their details secret, he didn't make the case he needed to make to undecided voters- which Romney will you trust? The one you hear tonight or the one who makes the 47% crack behind closed doors to very wealthy donors? Obama could have easily taken a "There you go again, Governor Romney" crack at his U-turns.

And finally, check your calendar. Don't schedule a debate on any important personal occasion. Like a wedding anniversary. Or your child's graduation. Or your spouse's birthday. A debate is important. You have to look like you WANT to be there, not like you are just waiting for it to end so you can go to dinner with your wife. Remember millions turned on the television to watch you. Talk to them, not the moderator.

But if there is a silver lining in all of this, it's this. If there was one debate for Obama to flub, it was this one. He was already the front runner and gaining ground on Mitt Romney. This drubbing allows him to go into the next debate which is a townhall format without expectations being jacked up even higher. Now it's Mitt Romney who will have to live up to sky high expectations next time around.

Obama, Mr. Cool, does need to remember to look excited about being there. He also needs to make sure it's not his daughter's big school concert or his mother-in-law's birthday.

Another version of this blog first appeared on Firstpost.com.