10/17/2012 03:53 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Obama's Style - Now Aggressive, Always Colored by a Hero

He was, as we've all noted, a much-changed Barack Obama during last night's second debate. But it was a familiar setting for him -- something many in the assembled media teams would not remember.

He debated John McCain there, in the Sports and Exhibition center of Long Island's Hofstra University -- albeit then for a chair and desk-bound one-on-one session with his Republican opponent, and with CBS's Bob Schieffer asking the questions.

As well as there being last night a select audience of about 80 voters, selected by Gallup Poll serving as both audience and pool of questioners (introduced and followed up by a firm Candy Crowley of CNN) the stage-setting was also significantly different. The contenders sat on bar-stools, of course, in the manner now familiar for such "town-hall" style events, enabling a lot of ambulatory freedom. Of which both these alpha males took full advantage (now that both were eager to assert their alpha-ness, unlike in Denver two weeks ago) -- even to the extent of some tetchy personal space-invasion early on.

That up-close-and-personal chest-puffing had me noticing a detail of the newer set-design, and brought back some of what I learned as a Long Island local four years ago.

The design detail was the placement of the debaters' water-glasses.

In 2008, Hofstra's president, the resourceful Stuart Rabinowitz had just won from the Presidential Debates Commission the privilege of hosting a debate for the first time -- remarkably enough to be repeated the very next time. Rabinowitz became, of course, a fountain of fascinating journalistic morsels as preparations were made backstage for the Obama-McCain contest (already tetchy in its day too - remember McCain snarling at his rival as "That One"?).

The college president said, I remember marveling somewhat at, that he'd been required ahead of time to supply the two opposing campaign teams with actual examples of the water-glasses to be provided for their leaders' use.

"So they know the heft," explained the event's host, and we speculated that perhaps one candidate might end up throwing a glass at the other.

Unlikely, of course -- but maybe it could been a bit more likely this year, in the more free-range environment and everyone's raised expectations of more explosiveness. In this year's "town-hall" re-jig of the set, however, the glasses were tidily, if a little less accessibly, tucked away on a shelf somewhat awkwardly built-in under the top of their side-tables, on which sat their notepads and pens. No physical hurling ensued.

Media analysis after the event focused inevitably on the President Obama's greater assertiveness. But for me it was illustrative that while he certainly was more energetic and took deliberate and active efforts to tackle ex-Governor Romney on policy questions that he let pass in Denver, he still retained much of that calm and measured delivery that is his hallmark. It's a hallmark that was imprinted by a huge historical influence on the former Illinois Senator ... the initially hard-charging, later grave and magisterial, abolitionist from the Civil War years, Frederick Douglass.

Another visual change at Hofstra since Obama's last visit is relevant here. Shortly after the 2008 debate, outside the university's Monroe Lecture Hall, a powerful piece of public art was unveiled -- a monumental bronze work by sculptress Vinnie Bagwell, which memorializes none other than Douglass himself (who incidentally was a New York resident).

During Obama's twelve years as a professor, at the University of Chicago's School of Law, his most original course was reckoned to be a historical and political seminar as much as a legal one, focusing on racism and law. He in effect created his own textbook for the subject, and drew heavily on the essays of Douglass (while also including, inevitably, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as citing seminal cases like Brown v. Board of Education). He additionally took care to fold in Conservative thinkers as well, like the failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

What his students remember most -- like Byron Rodriguez, who's now a San Francisco real estate lawyer -- is Obama's deep admiration for Douglass' style, especially his blending of eloquence, even high-flown verbal elegance, with a down-to-earth vocabulary and thought-pattern. "No one speaks this way anymore," Obama used to complain in class, according to Rodriguez.

He has clearly modeled his own delivery on Douglass, and on the former slave's adoption of a determinedly collective voice, which in its time managed to embrace generously both black and white people's concerns. One of Douglass' favorite sayings was: "I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong."

That determination to operate across divides, including these days the partisan chasm between congressional Democrats and Republicans may be less in evidence in 2012 as Obama fights, now with more obvious punchiness, to win re-election. But he will need it if he is to govern another four years, especially as they begin with our grimly-expected "fiscal cliff" at the turn of the year, and need for serious new agreed measures to come out of Capitol Hill.

I turned to historian Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation for an expert's assessment of how much Obama has been guided by Douglass. Cohen studied candidates' rhetoric closely, for his evocative book "LIVE FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches". His analysis is political as well as stylistic - and it reminds us that Obama, while an adept political fighter when he's on form, will need that all of that Douglassian compromise and inclusiveness he admires so much.

Cohen says:

"Douglass's words were recognition that radicalism and even the most principled stands must be balanced with the often difficult and far less enthralling process of incrementalism and political compromise. Some on the left would like Mr. Obama to be like the younger Douglass, the firebrand reformist. But Mr. Obama's rhetorical approach seems more attuned to the pragmatic observer of American politics that Douglass became."

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.