Of all the debate preparation sessions I’ve been through, the only one that changed how I think about debates came from a skilled debate coach who advises candidates and CEOs. He said: Forget the advice to be yourself.
Be the person the audience wants you to be, be the person that the occasion requires. Being himself may be all wrong for President Obama in the second debate. His tendency to stay cool under fire, “No drama Obama,” may be too laconic for his situation and the country’s condition. He has to convey an urgency that the country will be in big trouble, and soon, if Mitt Romney becomes president.
Romney, master of political disguises. When he lost for Senate against Ted Kennedy, Romney wore the mask of a moderate-to-liberal Republican who was pro-choice and pro-gay rights. As governor, he became moderate to conservative, shifting right to oppose abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, while working with Kennedy to pass the nation’s first comprehensive health coverage plan. When he ran for president four years ago, Romney kept moving right — on climate change, immigration and hunting. (“I’ve been a rodent and rabbit hunter, varmints, if you will.”)
Severely conservative. In this year’s primaries, he called himself a “severely conservative” former governor of the state which must not be named. After the Clint Eastwood disaster and insulting our British allies, he was foundering, still trying to hold onto the GOP’s conservative base while he moved to the center. Then the secretly videotaped 47 percent speech nearly killed his chances.
Suddenly, Mitt the Moderate. Romney, in the first debate, looking to recover, must’ve said the word “Massachusetts” more often in 90 minutes than he had in all eight years of running for president. Prior to that night, he was so skittish about Massachusetts’ reputation for liberalism that he preferred to make fun of us.
Be cool but in a cool way. Whatever role Obama thought he was playing in his first debate, he should give it up. If this were the days of vaudeville, the audience might’ve pelted him with tomatoes. He was cool, but not in a cool way. He was detached, distant, almost bored. He didn’t engage Romney or rebut him; instead he seemed as though he didn’t care what Romney was saying.
Play national champion. This time, he needs to be the leader who cares about what would happen to the entire country — especially those who Romney consigned to the 47 percent pile. Standing up for the little guy (and woman), defender of the rights of people who don’t even know where the Cayman Islands are, let alone put their money there. He needs to inject Bain back into the campaign as a symbol of what Romney believes success looks like — few jobs, higher profits, lots of tax shelters. And Romney’s 13 percent tax rate has been missing from the campaign in recent weeks.
Debates are usually won at moments. Obama’s got a gift for seeing the humor in an unexpected moment. When the presidential seal fell off the front of his podium and went clattering to the floor as he was delivering a speech, he looked down and told the audience, “It’s OK. You know who I am.” Self-mocking is a quality Romney isn’t even aware of, let alone uses. There are always unexpected moments in a debate; winning those can often translate into winning the night.
The consummate competitor. All successful politicians are competitive. But people close to Obama say he wants to excel at everything, whether it’s pool or golf or cards or hoops. In a recent profile in Vanity Fair, writer Michael Lewis followed him for months as he went through his daily grind as president. One day, Lewis watched Obama play in a regular — serious — pick-up basketball game with men 20 years his junior. He asked his teammates what he’s like on the court. They said he doesn’t shoot often but when he does it’s a high percentage shot. He plays his position and is aware of spacing on the floor.
But if you’re letting him score or always looking to get him the ball, or if you aren’t fighting him for rebounds, you won’t be invited back.
Two bad ones in a row could be curtains. If the president doesn’t outperform Romney, his presidency will be in serious jeopardy. Romney won’t go easy on him. As he does on the basketball court, the president has to pick his spots and take it to his opponent. Otherwise, he won’t be invited back — by the voters.