Barack Obama is an outstanding orator. His political opponents say so, even if it is a back-handed compliment. “A More Perfect Union” saw off Hillary Clinton and is one of the great speeches of the 21st century. His annual Washington Press Association after dinner sketch is the hottest ticket in town, showing he is as comfortable with humour and satire as with soaring rhetoric.
A More Perfect Union has breadth and depth and builds to a final emotional appeal in over half an hour. There was time to develop a persuasive narrative. Even in the knock-about that is the Press Association Dinner Obama hangs around, smiles, tells stories and gets lots of audience affirmation. (And, for both, someone else helps write his material.)
Maybe he is a great orator but a poor debater. If he is unable to change gear, if energy and passion and urgency do not come to the fore in the next two, Obama is in big trouble. Debating is different, it’s neither oratory nor stand-up: two minute chunks of speaking; an opponent coming back at you in jig-time; a moderator asking a supplementary; being disagreed with; having no script; being assessed coterminously with your opponent.
Debating is gladiatorial and visceral rather than solitary and cerebral. It’s a scrap, not a sermon. If you preach you are dead, if you appear superior you are dead, if you don’t look the part you are dead. Richard Nixon found that out to his cost half a century ago. Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister largely due to his showing in the first Leaders’ Debate. If you ask David Cameron’s big backers they will say he never turned up until the third debate and that cost the Conservatives a majority in this Parliament.
Obama was flat, pedestrian, insubstantial, hesitant and disinterested. For the most part Romney was the opposite. If he was not simply off his game- maybe he had fallen out with the wife, he certainly made a poor fist of his opening lines about his wedding anniversary- then he can fix it, but it may not be that simple.
Or it could be that his tactics were wrong: Wanting to appear Presidential rather than getting down and dirty; not producing too many “zingers” that can humiliate; and primarily looking to keep the likeability factor high. Obama’s team perhaps judged that strategically, over the next month and two more debates, playing it safe, defensively, was best. This seems ultra-conservative but even if that was the plan, Obama underperformed. Appearing not to be fully present is fatal in a debate, especially one about the economy when there is so much pain about. Not only does it seem that you lack confidence and have little control of your material, it looks like you don’t care. Again, this is fixable.
A brave, assertive performance against Romney would have buried the GOP candidate. Riskier for sure and there is always the chance the other guy delivers a hay-maker. So far better to play safe and hope Romney would punch himself in the face. (Of course Romney was bound to do that- well, who knew?)
Omaba has two more chances, so the killer question is: Can Obama go for it? Maybe he is simply a poor debater; solitary and cerebral might be his thing. If so, he is in big trouble. In this week’s Sunday Times Julie Arden, a typical US swing voter, says “Obama should know if you can’t lead a debate you can’t lead a country.” She is now voting for Romney.
Obama has been over this course before with John McCain, but his performances are illuminating. Against an elder statesman, who was all over the place on policy and rude and aggressive to his younger opponent, Obama was hardly tested. In fact Obama’s instinctual style- laid back, reflective, reasonable, reasoned and measured- was exactly right against someone who comes across as one of the good guys. We all bite our tongue and defer when dad goes off on one because it’s the right thing to do and that is what Obama did against McCain. (There was also the bizarre distraction of Palin/Biden; this time round Biden gets a debate, not a freak-show.)
But Romney is not an old man; he is in rude health and sounded better than Obama; he does not look his age and appeared young, lean, fit and up for it; he has been in business environments where you need to get up on your feet, say your piece, interrupt when things are not going your way and stay measured when the heat is on.
Romney showed he has a bit of steel about him, can turn on the charm, and is no pushover. He also came across as human, knowledgeable and a man with a plan. A leader you might vote for and one moderate Democrats will have been impressed by, scared by, newly-respectful of. (The political fact checkers can do their stuff, but this was a debate and the facts come after the polls say who won the contest.)
Obama needs to set about Romney. It was surprising that he was unable to do so this time, even allowing for the fact that tactically he may have planned not to. Obama must have sensed this was not his finest hour.
Don’t listen to those who tell you these set piece performances cannot change things. Of course they can end in a draw, disappoint or be mere distraction. But in the past week we have seen, as Nixon did half a century ago, that they can change the game. The best description of debating is “disputatious entertainment” and the best debaters are agile enough to turn on a sixpence, or a dime.
On the evidence so far Barack Obama is not one of them.
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about the author
Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.