In 2004 George W. Bush lost the first presidential debate to John Kerry. He sighed, had bad posture at the podium, and seemed generally disengaged. Sound familiar? President Obama followed in the same footsteps in what we might call the “incumbent trap” of presidential debates where the sitting president doesn’t take the debates as seriously as he should and turns in an uninspired performance.
Ronald Reagan did the same in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Jimmy Carter in 1980. And although Al Gore was not the president, he was the incumbent vice president and had the same problem in 2000. The president would do well to learn from those who were able to change the narrative and win the subsequent debates—and also heed the warnings from those who did not. These lessons are also important for Governor Romney as a reminder that there are still plenty of traps to avoid in the next two debates.
Complicating matters, the town hall presents a unique set of challenges that make the president’s ability to dramatically change the narrative difficult. The presence of the audience makes it more difficult to be overly aggressive without offending. And so he must walk the “tightrope” of the town hall carefully or risk further entrenching the narrative that he is losing the debates and the election, or risk alienating voters by appearing as such a radically different persona to confuse the audience as Al Gore did in the 2000 debates.
He must find his “Goldilocks” performance tonight to have the right amount of edge with Governor Romney, but also the right amount of charm to win. The winner tonight will be judged by which of the two connects best with the audience in the hall and voters, rather than by who has argument superiority in the debate, as Governor Romney overwhelmingly had in the first round.
Early on, we’ll find out if the president has truly accepted that he lost the first debate and is willing to accept responsibility—of if he is listening to those around him who insist that there is something or someone else to blame. In 2004, George W. Bush was willing, by some accounts with the help of senior staff, to admit his defeat and work harder in preparing for the town-hall debate. In my work with the president, I had warned him about potential problems with his nonverbal habits while speaking. I had made videos for the president highlighting how his message could be clouded by poor delivery. Only after his first debate did the president take this advice seriously and worked quickly to improve this dimension.
In the days following the debate, he admitted that he had underperformed, poked fun at himself, went on offense, and changed the narrative. President Bush managed to walk the tightrope of the town hall, balancing a connection with the audience and being aggressive with John Kerry. In perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate, Kerry accused President Bush of skewing his plan on small business and doing so because of a timber company that he claimed Bush owned. Bush responded that it was news to him that he owned a timber company and humorously asked Kerry if he “needed some wood,” disarming the attack and seizing command.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan had underperformed in his first debate, which provided evidence for the perception that he was too old for the job to be reelected. But Reagan, who was over-prepped, shook off the poor performance and directly confronted the age issue through humor. He solidified his landslide with one simple line, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” Both Bush and Reagan were able to free themselves from the burden of the presidency and recapture a challenger-type tone that let them walk the tightrope successfully (though Reagan’s second debate was not a town-hall debate).
In 2000 Al Gore had underperformed in his first debate because of many of the same poor nonverbal behaviors demonstrated by Presidents Bush and Obama. But Gore overcompensated and appeared weak in the next debate by agreeing with President Bush more than highlighting differences, prompting some to question who the “real” Al Gore was. Tonight the president has to avoid overcompensating and risk having his own “Al Gore” moment. Governor Romney should strive for consistency from his first debate, a powerfully persuasive tactic. While the president has complained that a “different” Governor Romney was present in the first debate, we may well be talking about why a radically different President Obama appeared tonight.
In 1992 President George H.W. Bush needed a comeback performance in the second debate, the first town hall in the history of presidential debates. But Bush didn’t break Clinton’s momentum, first by looking uninterested by checking his watch several times and by failing to connect with the audience when he couldn’t say how the economy had personally affected him. Bill Clinton carried on a conversation with that same voter that appeared personal and as if it was just those two in a room. In that moment, he convinced voters that he “felt their pain” from the economy, entrenching his path to victory in the election.
Governor Romney should remember his own experience in using debates to change the narrative. Coming off a defeat in the South Carolina debates and in the primary, he was able to change the narrative in Florida by going on a withering attack against Newt Gingrich, which took Gingrich by surprise and propelled Governor Romney to victory in the Florida primary. President Obama is no less capable of seizing the momentum in tonight’s debate. Governor Romney proved he could best the president behind the podium, but now he must seize the stage by better connecting with an audience of uncommitted voters. The one who can successfully navigate the town-hall tightrope could change the narrative of the campaign.