With the first Obama-Romney debate just around the corner, the presidential and vice presidential candidates are hard at work preparing for combat. What should each of them be concentrating on?
BARACK OBAMA. Debating does not come naturally to Barack Obama, the way it did to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Although he rarely makes a misstep during live debates, Obama exudes an air of diffidence toward the debate ritual that does not exactly set the television screen on fire. Lacking an instinctual feel for the drama of the occasion, the president tends to lapse into lecture mode when he ought to be making pithy personal appeals. Like Mitt Romney, Obama the debater is both technically competent and an arm's length from the audience.
On the plus side, Obama seems utterly at home in his own skin, with a level of cool self-confidence admirable in an occupant of the world's most stressful job. Furthermore, when he steps onto the debate stage, Obama will carry with him the full aura and majesty of the presidency. Voters do not have to envision him in the role--he already owns it. This is an advantage not to be underestimated.
As a debater, however, Obama is rusty, heightening the importance of thorough preparation. Many an incumbent president has stumbled through a rough first debate: Reagan in 1984, Bush 41 in 1992, Bush 43 in 2004. Obama's handlers must ensure that their candidate is thoroughly schooled in the mechanics of the debate: format, timing, physical layout, and all such details.
Things for Obama to work on:
• Shortening his response times and sharpening his rhetoric.
• Connecting policies to people-storytelling, for want of a better word.
• Avoiding the urge to agree with his opponent, as he too frequently did with John McCain in the 2008 debates.
• Diminishing Romney without appearing rude.
• Capitalizing on Romney's thin skin.
MITT ROMNEY: During the twenty-plus Republican primary debates this past season, Mitt Romney performed at a consistently high level, albeit against a weak field. Apart from the occasional jab from one of his opponents, Romney did not get the debate workout that would have helped him against Obama. Back in 2008 Obama had the finest sparring partner a candidate could ever hope for in Hillary Clinton. The best Romney got was Rick Santorum, and even that came amid a group setting. Romney has not taken part in a one-on-one debate since his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial race.
Capable as he is, Romney makes more mistakes in debates than Obama. Consider the ten thousand dollar bet with Texas Governor Rick Perry, or Romney's explanation of why he did not want undocumented workers doing jobs at his house: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals." And Romney can come across as petty and defensive, as in a CNN exchange in which he hectored Rick Perry and whined to moderator Anderson Cooper about enforcing the debate rules.
Romney's stylistic assets include an expressive and reassuring speaking voice and, of course, those much remarked-upon presidential looks. Although Romney is not as physically graceful as Obama, this may pose a problem only in the town hall, where the debaters must work the stage as they take audience questions; we saw at the Republican National Convention that when it comes to fluidity of movement, the former governor is no Fred Astaire. Perhaps Romney's greatest asset is a willingness to stick the knife in his opponent when the occasion demands. This is an exceedingly tricky maneuver, and Romney knows how to pull it off, as Newt Gingrich discovered in the primaries.
Things for Romney to work on:
• Avoiding awkward chuckles when asked an uncomfortable question.
• Not getting baited into testiness.
• Moderating his rhetoric for general audiences.
• Treating Obama respectfully without seeming intimidated by him.
• Keeping the debate focused on Obama's economic record.
JOE BIDEN and PAUL RYAN: Because the stakes are so much lower, vice presidential debates are typically more fun than the top-of-the-ticket encounters. The 2012 matchup between Biden and Ryan promises to uphold the tradition.
Joe Biden's career-long challenge has been to discipline an undisciplined tongue. Yet Biden's verbal and emotional exuberance might also work in his favor, particularly against a cold-fish opponent like Ryan. Under normal conditions vice presidential debaters aim their fire at the top of the ticket, not on each other. It will be interesting to see whether Biden hews to this strategy. When he debated Sarah Palin four years ago, the vice president treated her with kid gloves, but Ryan presents a much juicier and worthier target. Biden may well be tempted to drive a stake through the heart of this rising Republican star before he gets a chance to soar too high.
Things for Biden to work on:
• Curbing his prolixity.
• Avoiding Washington jargon and Senate-speak.
• Not overdoing the pathos.
• Resisting the urge to condescend to his younger opponent.
• Mastering the intricacies of the Romney-Ryan record in order to make a case for Obamanomics.
Paul Ryan, with the least debate experience by far of any of the four candidates, benefits from low expectations. Much of the public still does not know him, giving this previously obscure congressman from Wisconsin an opportunity to introduce himself anew to the largest audience of his career. Ryan is young, attractive, and telegenic. Visually he signals the future, while Biden signals the past. These are enormous pluses.
At the same time, Ryan has gained a reputation as someone who plays fast and loose with the facts, which means journalists and social networkers will be scrutinizing his every word for any slight divergence from God's gospel truth. Against the avuncular Biden, Ryan may be perceived as callow and unfeeling. Biden is all grins while Ryan can be a Gloomy Gus. Unlike Mitt Romney, Ryan does not have a strong natural voice. He speaks at a surprisingly high pitch--throw in his nasal Wisconsin accent, and you've got something akin to Ned Flanders from The Simpsons.
Things for Ryan to work on:
• Projecting maturity.
• Showing empathy with the voters.
• Brightening up an inherently non-sunny personality.
• Debating Obama, not Biden.
• Performing at a level that protects his viability as a future candidate.