WASHINGTON, September 28, 2012 — While nearly 60% of voters think President Obama will win the debates and only 34% think the GOP nominee will come out on top, that’s a trap Obama has to avoid going into the first debate.
Being overconfident has caused more than one debater to stumble badly. And keep in mind that while the President is a superior orator, he wasn’t the best debater in 2008, and Gov. Romney has had lots of practice debating and having to think on his feet this past year. The primary debates are the best dress rehearsals possible. And Obama hasn’t had even one. Debating takes a different set of skills that does speaking to thousands.
So be ready to be rocked back on your heels a few times, Mr. President. You could lose the debates, particularly the all-important first one on October 3 if you blunder into any one of five pitfalls. Here’s my two cents worth of advice:
1. Avoid being snarky – Snarky meaning to show disdain. And, yes, you can remain above the fray, especially as President of the United States, but you can’t afford to be seen as looking down your nose at your opponent.
No matter what you personally think of Romney as a man or a potential president, you must avoid at all costs showing your contempt for him. Be congenial, be collegial, be gracious.
Don’t lapse into condescension. Remember that supercilious remark you made to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary debate? It still rankles Hillary supporters.
During the New Hampshire debate, the moderator asked her about her likability quotient. She laughed and joked that the question hurt her feelings, but that she would “try to go on.” She added smiling broadly: “I don’t think I’m that bad.”
You glanced up from your notes, shot her a quick look and said with a sneer, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Not good form, Mr. President.
Yes, you visibly wounded her, but your words have come back to haunt you over the years. You revealed an arrogance under that veneer of Mr. Nice Guy.
So we know, you are capable of withering derision, but that is one arrow you need to keep in your quiver. Using derision will only boomerang.
2. Avoid underestimating Romney — Mitt Romney is no dummy. He may be stiff and has been compared to a cardboard box, but he is one smart cookie. His business record shows it. His work on the Olympics turn-around shows it. His two degrees from Harvard show it. His clever maneuvering of the Republican primary — whether you agree with his tactics or not — show that.
Sell him short, Mr. President, and you will regret it. Ask Newt Gingrich. To misconstrue Romney’s off-the-cuff remarks or his infamous videotaped observation about the 47% or his flip-flopping on issues as signs of weakness is to underestimate him. He has a deserved reputation of Mr. Fix It. If anyone can solve a problem and, he has a big one right now, being behind in the polls, he can do it.
Expect Romney to be well-prepared to take you on. Don’t forget his practice partner is Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, one smart cookie.
3. Avoid losing your temper — Romney will try to get under your skin and irk you. Don’t get irked. Stay wry, stay humorous, stay witty.
Obviously the economy is your Achilles heel. It is not where you want it, though you brought us back from complete financial disaster, but the recovery is slow, much slower than voters want. But don’t go on the defensive. Stay upbeat and optimistic. Americans love “It’s morning in America” speeches. They hate downers. They hate nastiness even more.
So if you have to zap Romney with a zinger, remember to deliver it with a smile, a gracious smile. Sort of like Ronald Reagan did in the 1980 Presidential debate when he said to President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again,” even though Carter had made a good point, one rooted in facts, about then Governor Reagan’s record on Medicare. Guess who won that election?
4. Avoid getting too wonky —
Watch out for knowing too much, which as President you do. You know more than any of us, including Mitt Romney, about what’s going on in government, how the levers work, how the machinery grinds out policy, all the secrets buried in the bowels of Washington. But don’t load us down with too much information. Bill Clinton got away with it at the Democratic Convention, but then again he is Bill Clinton.
So when you need to give an answer that spells out the inner workings of a bill or an issue, don’t become a policy wonk. Tell us simply, directly, just like you would if you were sitting across from us at a dinner table. You don’t have to prove you’re smartest guy in the room. You already are. Don’t be Professor Obama and pontificate. Just the facts please.
5. Avoid purple prose — You can’t soar into lofty rhetoric that says nothing. Avoid the kind of grandiloquence that candidates use on the campaign trail. We voters want facts. We want stats. But in little doses. Remember we have to digest what you are saying before the moderator moves to another topic.
And don’t avoid answering the question by lapsing into highfaluting bombast that sounds great but says nothing and in the end doesn’t answer the question. We know you are moving us Forward. We know we are the greatest country on Earth. We know Americans can do anything. Tell us what we need to know in down-to-Earth words, the kind we can remember when the debate is over.
Lastly, go in relaxed. We know you will go in prepared, having practiced for the debate by sparring with Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. John Kerry. And we hear that you are working on giving concise answers, which is good. Now relax and have fun.
If you show us how much you enjoy the give and take of the debate, you can win. But you can only do that if you deftly avoid the five pitfalls. So be nimble on your feet.
For information on the debate schedule, click on and read: Presidential Debate Schedule: President Obama vs. Mitt Romney
To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.
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