Presidential post-debate: Focusing on Obama’s mis-demeanor

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Mitt Romney answering a question as President Obama listens during the first presidential debate on Wednesday.

“Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge ‘victory’ in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language.”

James Fallows, the great Atlantic magazine writer, wrote the paragraph above in a piece for the September issue of the magazine. When I read it a month ago, I hated it. I still hate it, but now I get it much better. Apparently, Fallows was right.

The commentariat has declared last night’s debate a win for Mitt Romney, and not by a little bit. I watched the debate and the post-debate commentary on CNN and Fox. The Fox crew was, predictably, agog but not just the righties. Their designated liberal for the first round of reaction – Joe Trippi, formerly the genius behind Howard Dean’s 2004 front-runnerhood – definitely was on board with the triumphant-Romney meme.

On CNN, David Gergen immediately declared that the horserace, which he had previously thought was almost over, was back on. James Carville, who would have strangled anyone who made a similar analysis of one of his clients, announced that President Obama looked all night like he wanted to be somewhere else. This was the key.

No one had anything from the transcript to back up the analysis. It was all in (this is one of the leading new buzzwords of the year) the “optics.” When Obama was speaking, the other camera showed Romney with his head up, an affable expression, looking engaged. When Romney spoke, Obama seemed pained, grumpy, often looked down. (Actually, I don’t know how often Obama looked down, but he did it at least once and that moment – Romney selling, Obama downcast – had already been located and was being shown multiple times whenever the big analysis point was repeated.)

I’m not sure I heard anyone dwell on any of the words that came out Obama’s mouth, it was all about his demeanor, or mis-demeanor.

CNN also conducted a snap poll of 430 registered voters who watched the debate. By 67-25 percent, the snap-pollees said Romney had won the debate. So it’s official.

The two candidates, by the way, actually did utter some words and attempted to explain their policy differences, although neither of them said much new (why should they?) and none of it seemed to register. The promised “zingers” were not much in evidence. (I guess that when Romney compared Obama to his sons who would just keep saying the same wrong thing over and over, hoping to convince him by repetition, that was a set piece. But it didn’t particularly work.) Mostly, whoever told Romney to keep his head up when Obama was speaking is the genius, and whoever forgot to tell Obama the same is the goat.

I’m reminded of the famous fact that in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, the TV audience thought JFK had won and the radio audience thought Richard Nixon had won. The poor radio dopes didn’t realize that JFK was handsomer and tanner and that Nixon had a poor makeup job and a sweaty upper lip.

I’m also reminded of a passage from “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (a book about how television changed us, by the late, great Neil Postman). In the first hotly contested presidential elections, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the vast majority of the electorate had to decide between the two candidates without ever having seen either of them, heard their voices nor even seen an image of them. The poor slobs were reduced to having to decide whom to support based on what they had read about the men, their lives and their policy differences.

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Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 10/04/2012 - 10:17 am.

    For me the main takeaway

    was how much Mitt tried to sound like a Democrat – outright contradicting his own policy positions to do so. Of course he sounded better when he said he didn’t want to deny people with pre-existing conditions health insurance, or when he said he wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich.

    Now you would think conservatives would be howling in outrage as again and again in the debate, Romney appeared to discard his major conservative positions.

    But they’re not.

    It’s almost as if they know he’s lying.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/05/2012 - 01:35 pm.


      I’d like to know how a revenue neutral tax cut can actually be a tax cut. Maybe Clinton can teach us the math on that one, since Romney clearly isn’t interested in explaining how a person sending in the same amount to the government actually got a tax rate cut.

      Perhaps he means that the middle class gets to foot the loophole bill to the rich, as usual. I guess that would make it revenue neutral.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2012 - 10:18 am.

    Obama was caught flat footed.

    I think Obama got off to bad start at the very beginning when started off by critiquing Romney’s plan instead of presenting and explaining his own. He made the claim that Romney wanted to cut $5 trillion from the budget and when Romney just denied that, Obama appeared stunned. Yeah, Romney is contradicting everything he’s been saying for months, but Romney knows that most of the viewers don’t know what he’s been saying for months so he can get away with that. Obama came prepared to debate Romney’s plans, but Romney just pulled a new plan out of a hat and Obama didn’t see that coming.

    The other problem Obama has is the lack of progress during his administration. This is a tough nut because the truth is the Republicans have successfully blocked his agenda. If he admits that, he appears weak and ineffectual. If he denies it, he has to explain his own failings. I expected him to be better prepared to deal with that issue, instead he stumbled all around it.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that Romney put in a better performance.

  3. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 10/04/2012 - 10:19 am.

    I don’t think it is correct to say that Obama lost ONLY on body language.

    Mitt came across as more confident and more concise in articulating his positions. Obama was not nearly as assertive as he should have been in challenging those positions. The fact that, early on, he let Romney get away with calling his 5T tax cut “not a tax cut” was absolutely insane to me. All night I was waiting for him to ask one very simple question and not let go of it: What deductions would you end, Mitt? Romney’s positions are a house built on quicksand and would fall apart quickly to pointed questioning. Obama didn’t do it, and that is incredibly disappointing to me.

    Towards the end, Obama made a pointed speech about how Mitt wants to end Obamacare, end Dodd-Frank, cut taxes — but is unwilling to tell us how he will do so. But in my opinion it was not delivered effectively, and it came long after Mitt had already established his dominance of the night. Too little, too late.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/04/2012 - 10:33 am.

    Of course there is the other strategy

    Look bad and come back in the next debate.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 10/04/2012 - 10:35 am.

    Mountain of an anthill

    I dunno it seems more like the pundits just needed something to talk about. The news cycle needed this debate to be dramatic — either Obama pulling ahead or Romney making a comeback — and we shouldn’t lie to ourselves thinking anybody went into it expecting anything less than one of those two possibilities.

    But to be totally honest, this debate was a low-point for both Romney and Obama. They’re both way better debaters than what they showed last night. Was it super hot on stage or something? They both seemed agitated and ill-at-ease — Romney struggled to pull off zingers that mostly missed their targets while smiling like an over-eager Boy Scout who just overcame stage fright and Obama wearily drudged through his arguments and failed to rebut just about anything Romney said. In the meantime, their arguments simply flew past each other. They both promised the same things –deficit reduction, tax reform, no budget cuts– but each in rhetoric slightly more palatable to their bases. If anything, the difference between the two options is LESS clear than it was before.

    The pundits say it was a dramatic win for Romney, but come on. It was just super boring.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/04/2012 - 10:46 am.

    The “optics” of Romney in the debate were generally much better than Obama. Romney was smoother and more effective than Obama. Romney dominated the format and the moderator. From those standpoints, Romney “won” the debate.

    In terms of policy discussion, everyone was repeating the mantra of the debate “showing sharp differences” between the two. I didn’t see that. What I saw was Romney shaking the etch-a-sketch quite vigorously and blurring the policy differences by walking away from what he has been campaigning on in terms of taxes, and pulling in as his own such thing as the “pre-existing” condition coverage in his ” healthcare plan” (huh? what plan is he proposing??)

    Not a good night for Obama. He has to find a way of battling the free-floating ectoplasm of the Romney “plans” or at least effectively point out the vaporous nature of the statements.

    But hey, what about the format?

    Worst effing format ever!! Jim “Doormat” Lehrer controlling the time and directing the conversation?? Did he say more than a couple of complete sentences? Did he enforce any policy of time limits and order of response? What did he add? It was a sad sight.

    I have a suggestion for a moderator free format.

    Choose topics based on the emphasis in campaigns up to that date. Introduce a topic on a screen, 2 minutes each for an intro, 5 minutes each for a detailed response, 2 minutes each in summation. Enforce time limits by a beep, and at 10 seconds after the time limit the microphone goes off.

    • Submitted by Ross Willits on 10/04/2012 - 12:38 pm.

      Yes, and…

      Long beep if the answer is non-responsive to the question, and cut off the mic altogether if the answer doesn’t get on track within a set period of time.

      Also, no debating points allowed for rhetoric that has already been proven to be false or misleading. So, if one side or another brings up BS like, “gas prices have doubled under this administration,” which while technically true ignores the fact that that prices are still below the peak prices of 2007 or 2008, then they have to sit out the next round of questions.

  7. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/04/2012 - 11:20 am.

    Yes! Lehrer failed utterly

    Basically Lehrer asked the same question with a different topic again and again. Big, broad lobs that invited big, broad answers echoing themes we’ve heard for months. It was hard for Obama to get into specifics because there was no way to narrow and focus. Meanwhile, Romney just lied and smirked and danced away from anything remotely concrete.

    But I fault Obama’s handlers for putting him in a straitjacket: don’t get mad, look dignified and presidential, be above the fray. I think he was as bored as I was. If Candy Crowly asks pointed, incisive questions that preclude vague answers, we’ll see Obama at his best. But first we have to hope Biden can make Ryan feel like Dan Quail.

  8. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/04/2012 - 11:40 am.

    Body language; another profile?

    I trotted over to Asia Times online – a bit late this morning with my head down, thinking, and then like Obama, looked up occasionally with a smile as wide as a sunrise… where, I commenced reading the best of investigating journalists, the one and only, most cynical, funny, poet, prophet and “Roving Eye” reporter Pepe Escobar . ( “The Five Trillion Question”)

    “Why didn’t he go after Mitt? Why didn’t he even mention the 47%? Why didn’t he contradict those figures that don’t add up?”
    …”Because this may be part of a long, give-him-enough-rope strategy. Concede the battle to win the war.”

    And Pepe said a whole lot more…so I raise my head from its thoughtful, thinking head down, profile and smile a wide smile like the sun rising, indeed. Cheers!

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/04/2012 - 11:50 am.

    While Romney eviscerated him…

    the cartoon bubble I saw above Obama’s head said “I probably should have used a 6 iron on that last hole”.

    Honestly, Obama provided the most illustrative depiction of Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” conservatives could have hoped for; “the light worker” was clearly not in the room.

    Will it turn the tide for Mitt? Who knows…I’ll just rack it up as an evening of entertainment, which is more than any leftist politician has given me in quite some time.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/04/2012 - 11:54 am.

    We’re visual creatures

    …but that doesn’t mean that what we see on TV is always the “truth.” Presidential debates – “optics” or no “optics” – are political theater. As an old guy who actually watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate Eric referred to, and who attended a Nixon “campaign event” just to see what such an “event” was about, I was convinced long ago that such staged gatherings are just that – staged.

    Mr. Romney has been campaigning for the office of President for 5 years. He’s changed positions (“shaken the Etch-A-Sketch”) enough times to make the heads of both supporters and nay-sayers swim in confusion. His primary principle is, “Get elected,” and, as a plutocrat of long standing, I simply don’t believe he’s going to represent my personal interests, or those of the members of my family, very well as head of the government of my country.

    Mr. Obama has multiple failings, and my enthusiasm for him as chief executive has largely disappeared, based on policy choices he’s made since taking office, but neither individually or collectively do his failings – so far – persuade me that Mr. Romney would better serve my interests as an American citizen. Maybe I’m out on the fringe in this regard, but this election shapes up for me as yet another one wherein the presidential choice presented to me is “Which is the lesser of the two evils?”

    How Mr. Obama appears on television will matter to a lot of people, I guess, but I’m not among them. Warren Harding was perhaps the most handsome and “presidential-looking” chief executive the country has ever seen, and he was an incompetent who makes George Bush look like a Rhodes Scholar. As I suggested in a post related to another of Eric’s columns, nothing that Mr. Romney has said so far – and thus, nothing I expect to hear from him in the near future – is likely to persuade me to cast my ballot for him in November. In similar fashion, I can’t think of anything, offhand, that Mr. Obama might say that would persuade our resident right-wing commenters to switch their vote from Romney to Obama.

    I had another commitment last evening that prevented me from watching the faux-debate, but the more we focus on how candidates appeared or looked, the less motivated I am to watch future installments. Like those poor slobs choosing between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, I mostly decide on things like this based on what I’ve read about them as people, and about their policy proposals.

  11. Submitted by Steve Nelson on 10/04/2012 - 02:36 pm.


    I’m beginning to wonder if it’s accurate to even call these televised events “debates.” There is virtually nothing of substance given to viewers beyond the visual “did he look good” or “did he look bad.” The points of substance were tired and would change no minds and even the media’s favorite activity of “zinger watching” yielded little worth remembering. These get-togethers have more in common with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show then an idea exchange of would-be national leaders. The debates are only further proof that the people running campaigns these days are sucking the life out of our political system. We need campaign reform that gives us debates where politicians are forced to show whether they can actually think and listen, rather than just strut, groom and bark on cue.

  12. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/04/2012 - 12:22 pm.

    It must have started after President Obama’s bed time

    It is too bad they started the debate before President Obama mentally arrived. He looked tired, he was not prepared well. Being the biggest debate of his political career he shouldn’t have start out talking to his wife. What was so interesting on the podium that was continually looking down and not engaging Romney? Obama’s performance was very poor. As far as Romney goes I never know what to believe that he says because he doesn’t have a core of beliefs. With Romney it is whatever way the political winds are blowing. Very poor debate.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/05/2012 - 02:05 pm.

      Obama’s wife

      It was actually their wedding anniversary. So, I can imagine that talking to his wife was appropriate.

      Although I don’t excuse his less-than-exciting performance on the debate screwing up their anniversary, I also don’t think it’s appropriate for the media to harp on why we should care about how either candidate LOOKED. Seriously, Mr. Black, we’ve read or seen all this “talk pretty, don’t suck” stuff from ALL of the major news outlets. I’d rather hear about how, as expected, the debate lacked substance because the moderator failed to direct the debate into a defined space. Lehrer simply followed up each question (after allowing each to run over time) with the SAME QUESTION. Did someone not get their homework done on time? Would it have been so hard to put a few IQ points into the questions? I mean, Lehrer could have said “President Obama, your administration has reduced the federal government by eliminating or combining 77 departments. What are your plans for continuing to increase government efficiency?” He would then ask Romney “Governor Romney, you’ve been open about how you would cut taxes while eliminating tax loopholes. Which loopholes would you target?” Since when is it necessary to ask both candidates the same questions, let alone broadly generic questions that are guaranteed to only get generic answers. For Pete’s sake, saying you’re going to cut taxes and close loopholes, while remaining revenue neutral, to stimulate the economy is like expecting something different from the status quo. And I love Obama, but I didn’t want to hear more of what he accomplished (which is, a miracle in itself), but how he’s going to build on that.

  13. Submitted by Peter Blyth on 10/04/2012 - 12:36 pm.

    Debate audio was a tie..

    I listened to the debate on MPR and was not aware of President Obama’s downcast demeanor that lost him the ‘win’, I don’t believe that we learned anything new but Romney was in etch-a-sketch mode.

  14. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/04/2012 - 12:49 pm.

    A contrarian view

    Most of the analysis I’ve heard so far is based on who scored the most debating points, and who looked most assertive.
    However, Obama’s biggest asset in this race has been that people like and trust him much more than they do Romney. While Romney’s bullying may have at first glance come across as assertive, it may in the long run reinforce the prevalent view that Romney is neither empathetic or trustworthy, which will have more effect on how people vote.
    Also — see Romney probably provided more ammunition for future Democratic SuperPac ads featuring his easily contradicted quotes.

    • Submitted by Susan McNerney on 10/04/2012 - 03:20 pm.

      Obama already has an ad airing

      that uses a clip of Romney lying in the debate. Expect a lot more of this.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/04/2012 - 06:54 pm.


      Also, given Tuesday’s Turkish/Syrian hostilities, Obama probably had more important things to worry about than a debate.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/04/2012 - 01:37 pm.

    This just in:

    Leftist bloggers appear to disagree with AlGore, who attributes Obama’s disaster to “thin air”…the consensus is (drum roll): It’s Bush’s fault.

  16. Submitted by Peter Soulen on 10/04/2012 - 06:39 pm.

    I Thought Obama Did Great!

    May I point out what’s NOT being talked about today around the water coolers? Romney’s snappy, “elegant” answer to issues surrounding the 47%, harvesting profits, Cayman shelters and secret Swiss accounts, tax returns, and Bain…?

    Does anyone seriously believe that Romney did not come to that debate prepared to not only talk about those things but maybe lay out the sound-bite zinger that we WOULD be talking about if POTUS had given him the chance?

    Romney needed to talk about soooo much last night, and the 47% (maybe) most of all. Now – we are still talking about that today – but we are not talking about what Romney said to put out the fire. The fire smolders on.

    Again, does anyone seriously believe Obama did not bring up these topics because he just forgot? Or because he was incapable of injecting them into the debate? I think he played a great game of rope-a-dope. And recall – Obama is a fan of Muhammad Ali…

    He stayed on topic. He got in some zingers. I liked the one about Romney’s ideas for the middle class being so good they had to be kept secret. He smiled when he felt like it and was serious when it was called for. He consistently and calmly laid out the huge differences between him and his opponent.

    And if he looked a little tired, or peeved? I understand that the responsibility of the Presidency can do that to ya. He has a wee bit more on his plate than just debating. And four years of that kind of power might also make you just a little less likely to be able to suffer gladly some fool who comes along and says your performance has been rotten and I’m going to take your job.

    And to build your case for doing that with the amount of misleading hooey and outright lies Mr. Romney laid out? No. President Obama did a great job is what I think. As the days go by in this time now before they meet again, I think we’ll see some fact checking, and some head scratching concerning the “winner” of last night’s debate and his astonishingly inexplicable dance to the middle. If anything rattled Obama – it was that.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/05/2012 - 09:30 am.

      Great analysis!

      Romney gave Obama plenty of sound bites for his commercials.
      Shots of Romney acting like a clod will come back to haunt him.

  17. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/04/2012 - 07:09 pm.


    The only concise definitive statement from Mitt about fixing the economy was:
    Fire Big Bird and Jim Lehrer!

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/04/2012 - 09:58 pm.

    Romney turned in a better debate performance. Those tuning in for a clear and accurate assessment of policy plans received nothing of the kind. Those who tuned in for entertainment value could have been watching Baseball. I wonder whether Obama will sharpen in future debates; he’s competitive and hates getting shown up in things like this. But the broad story remains: Romney has a fair bit of ground to make up, and while good debate performances can help he needs assistance from deteriorating economic data to pull this out. And right now, the data are moving against him.

  19. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 10/05/2012 - 02:18 pm.

    not enough preparation

    Now that I’ve had time to think about it, here’s what I think happened to President Obama during the debate: Not enough preparation!
    Obama had already said publicly he thought the debate prep was a “drag.” Compared to other presidents, Obama has a lazy streak. He frequently skips security briefings and meetings with other government officials.
    Obama assumed he could skimp on prep because Romney would be a stiff, clueless rich guy and make a major gaffe during the debate. The worst that would happen, he thought, would be the news media would call the debate a tie.
    But Romney didn’t act the way he expected. Romney showed he knew what he was talking about and actually enjoyed the debate. Obama panicked. He was so discombobulated he forgot to mention the 47 percent video and most of his talking points. He even became incoherent at times.
    I’ll bet for the next debate, Obama studies his butt off.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/05/2012 - 06:27 pm.

      Day job

      Obama actually has one (you ARE aware of current events).
      And please document missed security briefings (Faux news doesn’t count).
      Romney was definitely well prepared; he had his lies down pat.
      But glib is not the same as knowledgeable.
      We need a statesman, not a salesman.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/05/2012 - 07:05 pm.


      black = lazy

  20. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/05/2012 - 03:19 pm.


    I thought the debate had a well-rehearsed look, especially on the part of Romney. It looked to me as though Obama was not seriously engaged much of the time. Perhaps it is part of his strategy to lower the expectation for him in coming debates–or maybe he was just tired.
    But he did not debate preparation to challenge Romney on his many lies, like the number of Americans still unemployed (which just changed) or the consequences of Obama proposals, lies or “misstatements,” or drawing conclusions that were fantasy induced or reeeeaaaal stretches.

    Maybe they should get a tougher questioner (one who wouldn’t shrug and let the candidate continue after time’s up) and, especially, to keep on questioning until the candidate answered the question. How about pop-up quizzes, some method that would keep the candidates from rehearsing themselves blue so that everything comes out sounding canned. I’d like to see the two of them on their feat and forced to think through their answers without mental cheat sheets for every question. I don’t know how you would do that. Maybe announce nothing about the debates, do not announce a theme or topic (and in fact, perhaps not have one) and throw in some serious, really unexpected questions.

  21. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 10/05/2012 - 08:48 pm.


    Since the economy is the big issue, and all that Romney really had to do to exceed expectations was to keep his foot out of his mouth for once, I wonder if the “open” forum and international policy foci for the next two debates may be his undoing. Time will tell.

  22. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/06/2012 - 07:14 pm.

    moderator …

    Out of control.
    What would have been wrong with
    As the PBS debate director ?
    And how could Jim lehrer only have laughed off the Shut down PBS comment ?
    Well back to Newsroom where the guy learns how to stand up with grace.

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