Obama's debate dilemma

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William Benoit, a Communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has written widely on the functions of debate discourse. Benoit contends that candidates have essentially three chess-like moves they must master. First, they need to enhance their own credentials as a desirable office-holder – what he calls acclaiming. Second, they need to downgrade their opponent's credentials as an undesirable office-holder, what we know as attacking. And finally, they must respond to attacks by defending.

Acclaiming, attacking and defending occur on two different but related planes during a debate: either through policy and issues (past deeds or future goals) or on the grounds of character (personal qualities, leadership abilities, or ideals). 

Great debaters weave these three functions together in seamless fashion. Bill Clinton was quite good at it.  If you go back and look at Obama’s performance within this framework, it is clear that he did none of these things well. He failed to either explain or convincingly defend his record, or lay out what a second Obama term would look like. And he certainly did not persuasively attack Romney’s policy ideas or impugn his character enough to make him seem undesirable. 

Debates are certainly impressionistic, and by all accounts Romney won that battle. But he also won the chess game described above. So the question for the Obama campaign is not whether he will be more aggressive or spirited in the next debate (that is a given) as much as how will the president do a better job of acclaiming, attacking, and defending on policy, issues, and character.

It is here that the choices present themselves. 

Going back to the summer of 2011, the Obama campaign was convinced that Mitt Romney would become the Republican nominee. Two strategies emerged in how to deal with a Romney candidacy. One would present him as someone with no political core – call it the “Multiple Choice” or “Etch-a-Sketch” Romney. The other, based upon Romney’s primary performance and his choice for VP, would be to paint him as a Tea-Party style Republican far out of the mainstream. We might call this the “Paul Ryan” Romney.

However, the Obama campaign was cursed by its own good luck. As Romney’s poll numbers dipped in the wake of his own missteps, all the president had to do was to get out of the way, and prepare for the final act of the election – the debates. 

The problem for Obama and his handlers was that the “Paul Ryan” Romney didn’t show up at that first debate. It was a Mitt Romney seeking to capture independent, undecided voters and middle class voters by appearing more moderate. The day after the debate Romney even backtracked on his 47% comment, calling it “completely wrong.”

If this is the Romney we will see for the last month of the campaign, then the Obama campaign must retool entirely for the next two debates. The Etch-a-Sketch Romney Plan needs to be dusted off. 

That means that the next two debates will become about character. If Team Obama prepares properly, we should look for the president to acclaim, attack, and defend largely on the idea that the American people cannot trust Mitt Romney. He has changed his mind so many times that no one knows where he stands. If Ted Kennedy called him “multiple choice,” we might well see the president refer to Romney as “all of the above.”

During campaigns, Americans love a good fight as well as a good show. President Obama provided neither of those in the first debate. That will certainly change – but how the president prepares and executes the fight and the show will matter more. 

Malone is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Pace University.

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