What to Watch for in Tonight’s Debate: A More Forceful Obama

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Michele Eve Sandberg / Corbis

President Obama campaigns in South Florida at the University of Miami on Oct. 11, 2012

Before Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated in Denver, some very smart political scientists tried to dampen the overheated expectations game with a dose of historical context. Debates, they argued, usually don’t matter that much. They loom large in our recollection of past races because they offer a snapshot of a candidate’s strength or fecklessness, but they are rarely decisive. Many pundits trumpeted this perspective. Then Romney beat Obama in Denver and took off in the polls, turning a race that seemed like Obama’s to lose into a nail biter with three weeks to go. What happened? 

Two things: Romney exceeded expectations, and the media — abetted by panicky liberals — fashioned a narrative that Obama’s performance was worse than it actually was. After a brief horse-race boost, Romney has settled back into a virtual tie with the President, according to the polling averages of RealClearPolitics. That’s the same position the two candidates were in on Labor Day, before Obama received a postconvention bump. The debate didn’t dramatically alter the race; it restored its equilibrium.

(MORE: Will Obama Bounce Back or Fall Below His Floor?)

This is not to say Romney didn’t win. He did. His answers were crisper, his rejoinders smoother, his demeanor more forceful. Obama was halting and flat. But the President’s performance was hardly the cataclysmic implosion that supporters have suggested. Go back and read the transcript. The great Denver rout has become a political fish story, a defeat that grows larger in scale with each breathless retelling.

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week, Oct. 5–11)

There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s not, as some reporters have held, because the media were desperate to latch on to a dramatic comeback story. It’s mostly because unpacking a 17,000-word colloquy on the tightest of deadlines is hard. The media have a tendency to peer ahead instead of look back. So instead of returning to dissect some of the subtle and substantive exchanges, many reporters moved on — almost instantly — to the implications of Romney’s strong showing. Apart from fact-checking the falsehoods that were slung onstage, most of the debate analysis consisted of theater criticism. And theater criticism matters, because it shapes voters’ impressions of the candidates.

Which is why as the second debate approaches, advisers to both Romney and Obama are coaching their candidates on style, not substance. As Politico reports, Romney’s prep sessions “have been focused almost entirely on the stagecraft and body language of engaging with the questioners. Romney has been warned not to physically back away from a questioner, but to lean in as if having a one-on-one conversation that just happens to have 50 million or so eavesdroppers.” Obama’s surrogates have primed the press to expect a more “energetic” and forceful candidate, as the New York Times reports. “This isn’t a guy who needs to be grilled on facts,” an Obama aide told the Times. “What he needs to work on is stylistic.”

(MORE: Moderator Role Under Scrutiny Before Second Presidential Debate)

In other words, the nominees are looking to hit the alpha-male sweet spot, which lies somewhere between assertive and antagonistic. This is particularly true of Obama, whose body language in Denver was uncharacteristically timid. The Los Angeles Times, Politics Daily and Politico (twice) all described his performance as “flaccid.”

For Obama, the challenge is complicated by Tuesday’s night’s town-hall format, which has the candidates standing together onstage, surrounded by a coterie of undecided voters. With your rival at your side, channeling voters’ questions into personal attacks on your opponent could come off as prickly, but aides have foreshadowed the President throwing the punches he pulled last time: Bain Capital, the 47%, Osama bin Laden and so on. As Mike Grunwald argues, it is incumbent on the incumbent to make a strong enough case for the last four years that the public sees fit to give him four more.

However the debate goes, look for Democrats to claim victory. This may seem obvious; the spin room exists for supporters to say their guy won. But Democrats erred after the first debate, as Kevin Drum noted, by formally ceding the night to Romney. Because this is rare, it fed the emerging narrative that Romney’s win was more decisive than it actually was. In contrast, after Joe Biden dominated the vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan, Fox & Friends trotted out a psychiatrist to suggest that Biden was either drunk or suffering from dementia.

Democratic surrogates don’t need to stoop to such claims. But they would do well to paint the night as a triumph, a task that will be a lot easier if Obama comes out fighting.

MORE: What Happened at the First Presidential Debate

191 comments
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lorrainie
lorrainie

I really liked Mitt Romney's plan for growing this economy. He will make  a great president.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Just not for this country.

lorrainie
lorrainie

Yes for this country.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 You may want to check with the people of Massachusetts. They fell for Mitt's lies elected him governor and are now voting overwhelmingly against him.

Ozzies4Obama!
Ozzies4Obama!

Good review. I hope there is less debate and argument on the facts that each candidate clings to and more talk about what each plans to do. Obama will, I hope, be cool calm and collected and not come across as attacking his opposition as I believe Romney oftentimes does. I hope, as you do I'm sure, that Obama still comes out fighting. Democrats need the win!

Ozzies4Obama!
Ozzies4Obama!

Good review. I hope there is less debate and argument on the facts that each candidate clings to and more talk about what each plans to do. Obama will, I hope, be cool calm and collected and not come across as attacking his opposition as I believe Romney oftentimes does. I hope, as you do I'm sure, that Obama still comes out fighting. Democrats need the win!

paulejb
paulejb

"BOSTON, Oct. 16, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A new poll (using Gallups' party affiliation in Virginia) reveals that Romney now holds a commanding 11 point advantage over President Obama (54% to 43%) according to Kimball Political Consulting. The earlier Gallup poll revealed that Virginia's demographics are 35% Republican, 34% Democrat and 30% Independent"

http://www.heraldonline.com/20...

Looks like the debate will be an anti-climax.

paulejb
paulejb

Disappointed Obama voters have a choice. 

"Police arrest US presidential candidate Jill Stein at debate site"

"Police arrested Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate, Cheri Honkala, after they tried to enter the site of tonight’s presidential debate at the Hofstra University."

http://rt.com/usa/news/police-...

These gals appear to have moxie.

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

"Bush was an Epic Fail, Obama is cleaning up the mess, and Romney wants to trash the house again if we let him."

================================

The truly scary thing is that their are millions like Bugs who believe this arrant nonsense. There is no reaching Obama deadenders.

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

 "Indeed. Especially come 11/7 when we get four more years."

==================================

Hope is a wonderful thing, Bugs. Hopefully the disappointment won't sour you when Obama goes down in flames on election day.

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

 "Please explain this fake chart."

=============================

Glad to, Bugs. It was created by the Obama Economic Team in January 2009. See page 4, Bugs. 

Any other questions?

http://www.ampo.org/assets/lib...

paulejb
paulejb

Which Barack Obama will show up tonight?

http://global.nationalreview.c...

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Thanks Troll. With your idiotic cartoon my night is now complete.

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

Glad I could make your night for you, Bugs. It is unlikely that Obama will.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 You always do. Every time I wonder if you may have something of value to say you post this idiocy and I realize you don't.

paulejb
paulejb

Will Barry mug Mitt? Don't see how else he can win the debate.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Mug Mitt? He can just present the facts and Mitt will mug himself.

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

Present the facts? Hell, if Obama did that no one would vote for Obama/Biden except you, Bugs.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

And if Mitt came clean 3 of his 5 sons would vote against him

FreedomYes
FreedomYes

What is a more "forceful" Obama? He doesn't need to be forceful, he's got the mainstream media forcing their will on the American people and frankly... we're quite done with having this man forced down our throats. If Obama wants to better his image he should try being a more honest man and quit lying to us because he knows that the media doesn't ask him follow on questions when he makes claims that require counting differently to work. You want to talk about unemployment? Great! Now let's use the same math that was used to derive the original figure of 7.8% that "magically" just happened to be the same exact number, right when he needed it. I'm not asking for much, just intellectual honesty.

It's like this...

Would you be okay if your mortgage was calculated one way in 2008, and another way in 2012? We call that a "balloon mortgage" don't we? So how is counting differently any different when talking about unemployment number? Shouldn't we use the same math to determine if unemployment went up or down? Is it really that difficult to be fair and honest at such a basic level?

And if Romney is going to raise your taxes by lowering your taxes, what math is it exactly that allows for that miracle to occur? One way is to account for a very hard count where if he maintains current tax rates that you count the money that Obama wanted to change. So is Romney suggesting that taxes remain the same? Or is he suggesting that they are raised? Or is he suggesting that they are lowered? Pick one and let's just apply the math to both without making adjustment. Pick how and just apply it evenly.

With Obama fair is when the people who pay the most, pay the least. Right? The reasoning is that those who get refund checks that aren't really refunds at all but in all actuality just checks because in order to refund something you have to put something in first, right? So if we use Obama lexicon fair works like that? Is it because as a percentage those who get checks have to pay things like state and local sales tax? Is that "fair" to tax some people for a carton of Lucky Strikes and not "tax" others? How does that work? All I'd like to see is a definition that is clear, and leaving the label for me to decide. I don't call anything that Obama calls fair, fair; I call that creative ways of making it sound like it's right to reward the folks who beat up the ones the other folks in the school bathroom. I call that rewarding people who made poor choices, at the very least the most liberal way you can carve that one up, and punishing the ones who did their homework, studied and made sacrifices early in life to be where they are regarding their station in life. 

So forceful is what you think Obama needs to be? How about clear, honest and having the intestinal fortitude to be honest about socialism and capitalism minus all the word games. If Obama does all that he should win, right?

We all know that if Obama tried that, he would lose in the biggest landslide in American history, don't we?

StanleyCupp
StanleyCupp

 You baggers sure have a preoccupation with shoving things down your throats.

FreedomYes
FreedomYes

So you oppose using equal weights and measures and define fair the way the dictionary and the rest of America as the poster child of unfair. Oh and are voting for Obama. Got it.

FreedomYes
FreedomYes

Ah yes, the "everyone knows" myths. You've built a political belief system with lies, felons, counties with more votes than registered voters, smokes for votes and the promise of free stuff.

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for country." Translation for Democrats: Voting yourself benefits is "un-American", but I say that only because you need to hear it. But I wont change your mind, so run along and vote yourself more stuff, you'll kids will pay the bill and you're okay with that.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

And yet it is your party that wants to force voters of the rolls go figure. Do you realize if everyone who was eligible to vote actually voted, the Republican party would become extinct in all but a handful of the most backward states.

sacredh
sacredh

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work I go.

kate0503
kate0503

Obama has no record to run on and so he'll fight and he'll attack because he has nothing to discuss.  He has run this country into the ground and 4 more years will ruin healthcare/medicare and tax us to death to pay for this inferior healthcare.  The taxes begin after the election if he wins...get ready!!

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 Obama has a record of Republican incompetence and greed to run on. Do we really want to go back to the same policies that crashed the economy and created two unpaid for wars?

paulejb
paulejb

mantisdragon91,

"Obama has record..."

================

You can stop there, Bugs. Obama's record is EPIC FAIL. No getting past that.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 No Troll,

Bush was an Epic Fail, Obama is cleaning up the mess, and Romney wants to trash the house again if we let him.

filmnoia
filmnoia

Your RNC talking points are stale and moldy. 30 straight months of job growth, and if you like the  healthcare you have you can keep it. I guess you must be  in the 1%, since if things go according to plan, the current tax breaks for the 1% expire in January. That's a good thing for everyone else, since the 1% aren't creating jobs in the US. However, they have had profitable years creating jobs off shore. With Willard around , more jobs will go off shore. Bain's function wasn't to create jobs. It was solely financial manipulation.

Galactic Cannibal
Galactic Cannibal

Our  army of political Talking Heads know nothing about the future. 

99.9% of what they say is total rubbish.

The 0.01% is based on  questionable polls.

But the American masses of LCD's listen to and make decisions based on the rubbish of the Talking Heads.

Our country has a $16 trillion  debt and its growing .

Do these Talking Heads have a solution to cut this debt by say 80% over the next 4 years. HELL no.

But worst than that, neither do our elected Politicians.

No one seems to understand a simple principle . "

If you spend more than you earn you will go into debt and eventually go bankrupt".

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Which is why we need to raise taxes and cut the budget where it really counts - Defense.

filmnoia
filmnoia

Since you seem to have all the answers, why not run for office? Your country needs you - NOT.

filmnoia
filmnoia

Good news for the Obama team in Ohio. That creepy little GOP vermin Sec. of State has had his appeal to stop early voting there turned down by the SC. They wouldn't even listen to the case.

http://www.dispatch.com/conten...

Eduardo Rocha
Eduardo Rocha

4    M O R E  Y E A R S  ! ! !

paulejb
paulejb

Eduardo Rocha,

THREE MORE WEEKS!!! 

lorrainie
lorrainie

THREE MORE WEEK IS CORRECT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I CAN'T WAIT

ROMNEY FOR PRESIDENT !!!!!!!!!!!!!

StanleyCupp
StanleyCupp

 THREE MORE WEEKS!!! ...  till four more years.

BruceMajors4DC
BruceMajors4DC

Breaking: Obama debate play book found. He will reveal that Bain Capital financed the mortars Libyan terrorists killed Americans with, from a division of Halliburton. Bush did it too!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Breaking, you are a caricature.  The "blame it on  Bush" meme is funny when you guys blame every single thing on Obama.

BruceMajors4DC
BruceMajors4DC

No wonder you guys lost the governorships, then the House, now the Senate and probably the White House. You are just dumb as dirt, swallowing everything your media and party and community college professor tells you, impressed by snake oil salesmen, especially if they have a sheepskin from someplace you couldn't con your way into.

I hear many Obama critics blame Pelosi and Reid and sometimes even Bush. Meanwhile you airheads follow your Lord Zero and his court jesters in blaming Bush, even as you continue Bush policies of debt and inflationism.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

I live just outside DC in northern VA Bruce (across the river in fact), so I do know quite a bit of your constituents and I'm pretty sure none of them are voting for you.  I'll keep saying "you guys" right up until I believe you're being anything but partisan here.  Most Libertarians, short of their wacky fringe beliefs, are not.

BruceMajors4DC
BruceMajors4DC

You aren't one of my constituents. But if you were I would still point out how stupid your partisan drivel is, you silly bore.

And continue on, idiot that you apparently are, with that "you guys" false dichotomy.

Romney was wrong that the Democrat base is the 47% who don't pay federal income taxes (especially since net non tax payers includes defense contractors, government employees, bailed out banks, etc.). The Democrat base, as is obvious from posts here, are the 47% of dumb, gullible people who still read rags like TIME.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

"You are just dumb as dirt, swallowing everything your media and party and community college professor tells you, impressed by snake oil salesmen, especially if they have a sheepskin from someplace you couldn't con your way into."

Not a good way to get votes Bruce, but fortunately I'm certain you're just a joke write-in candidate in DC.  Do these things sound elegent in your head before you write them, because I have to say it reads like you're having a fit.

"Meanwhile you airheads follow your Lord Zero and his court jesters in blaming Bush, even as you continue Bush policies of debt and inflationism."

Meanwhile Obama has been blamed for everything, everything by you guys for the past four years - even things that happened before he went into office.  Selective memory much?