As I watched the Obama/Romney debate unfold, I was reminded of The Great Debate of 1960 between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. It’s too bad that President Barack Obama’s prep team didn’t have it in mind.
In 1960 the Nixon/Kennedy presidential debate afforded the voters the first opportunity to see their candidates in action and the visual contrast was dramatic. The session was about domestic politics as was this present skirmish. Mr. Nixon was in an ill-fitting shirt and he refused makeup to improve his sallow complexion and to erase a perpetual “five o’clock shadow.” By contrast, Mr. Kennedy appeared energetic and well-rested.
For those deprived of a visual cue, radio listeners declared Mr. Nixon the winner of the debate. But the 70 million who tuned in to watch, overwhelmingly, declared Mr. Kennedy as the victor. Television viewers focused on what they saw, not necessarily on what they heard. History repeated itself again Wednesday. Mr. Romney appeared charismatic and in control, while Mr. Obama looked like he really wanted to be at dinner instead of on stage for his 20th wedding anniversary celebration.
The optics for Obama were all wrong. His podium was not central to the camera shots. He always was akimbo when he was answering questions. The camera shots of Mr. Romney had him turned up front and center to the camera. The total effect made the President look evasive, while Mr. Romney was answering “dead on.” The Obama team clearly is at fault for not vetting the camera angles.
The “ums” and “ahs” didn’t help Mr. Obama, even with the radio crowd. Reading the transcripts of the debate only might have helped voters conclude that it was a “draw.” CBS and CNN did split screens. The Republican challenger looked at the president and Mr. Obama’s downward glance at his notes for much of the debate made it look like he was disengaged and furtive.
Mr. Romney’s approach of being both a candidate and the moderator on occasion gave him an “in-charge” persona. Mr. Obama was too meek and appeared to be on the ropes. He missed many opportunities to pin Mr. Romney to specifics or outright pivots in his position. The Democrat president was far too defensive in his answers. He even sounded a bit whiny when he talked about not promising to be a perfect president, a promise that his opponent probably thought was one he kept.
The atmospheric tone of the debate hurt Mr. Obama, perhaps irreparably. Granted, there are two more debates but this one was on domestic issues. The content of this debate was stage center for the voting public. While foreign affairs, for example, which is the subject of a subsequent debate is vitally important, folks are more interested in the impact of the presidency on their lives. Foreign policy invariably also impacts the quality of life for citizens and job growth, but the public has a hard time understanding this nexus. Bread-and-butter issues on the home front are easier for them to understand.
It wouldn’t surprise me if you see Mitt Romney spurt ahead in the polls and most of the swing states. The momentum on his side will be hard for Obama to derail, now that the president’s train ran off the track.