1. Get Some Sleep
No, I’m not joking. As shallow as it may sound, half of winning a debate — or, frankly, any job interview (which is what a debate really is) — is looking the part. Famously, Richard Nixon lost his debate to John Kennedy, according to the majority of voters watching it on TV, while those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won. Nixon looked old and sweaty next to the youthful, vibrant-looking Kennedy.
I previously wrote that President Obama looked and sounded exhausted during his debate with Romney. To put it more bluntly, I am convinced that had someone who knew nothing about politics watched the debate with the sound off, he or she would have summarized it as “one guy looked like he needed a nap. The other one looked like he had the best night’s sleep ever.”
The president looked as if he had stayed up all night — the night before one of the most important job interviews of his life. Compared with Romney, who is the elder, the president looked older and slower — qualities that don’t exactly make Americans feel confident in a leader. The Barack Obama who spoke at a rally in Denver the following day looked and sounded energized and years younger. That Obama needs to show up at the next presidential debate, hopefully after having gotten a good night’s sleep. Or at least a power nap.
2. Ditch John Kerry
Ask any sports fans who they blame if their favorite sports team has a major, embarrassing loss, and they may say that their favorite quarterback deserves some of the blame, but they will also blame the coach. Well, after President Obama’s embarrassing performance at the debate, many are calling for his debate coach to be ditched.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, played the role of Mitt Romney in their debate prep sessions. Many are now speculating that Kerry’s apparently lackluster prep may have left the president in danger of experiencing the same outcome as Kerry did in 2004: a loss. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman played the role of President Obama in Romney’s prep sessions. Let’s just say that in keeping with the sports analogy, Portman deserves a bonus, and Kerry may need to have his contract terminated.
3. Get Comfortable Attacking
We’ve heard a million complaints that the president needs to get “tougher,” that his style is too laid-back for him to fight aggressively enough with opponents. He clearly prefers substantive dialogue to fighting, which can be admirable in a leader, but the kiss of death to a candidate.
Previously I have defended his style, but not anymore. In the debate the president came across as someone in a heavyweight fight who was being sucker-punched repeatedly but refused to respond in kind. He may not like fighting, and he certainly may not like fighting dirty, but he needs to get comfortable forcefully attacking his opponent’s weaknesses if he wants to win not just the next debate but re-election.
4. Anticipate Surprises
During the above-mentioned Oct. 4 campaign appearance in Denver, the president joked that “some energetic fellow claiming to be Mitt Romney showed up last night,” but he went on to explain that “this fellow” was espousing positions and ideas different from those previously espoused by the real Mitt Romney. The president was making the point that the Romney who showed up at the debate was a completely different Romney from the one who has been present on the campaign trail.
This should not have been a surprise. The Romney on the presidential campaign trail is also a completely different Romney from the one who served as governor of Massachusetts, changing his positions on issues like abortion and health care along the way. The president seemed caught off guard that Romney was attempting to distance himself from his previously espoused positions during the debate. He should not have been.
The one thing that should not be a surprise at this stage of the campaign is Mitt Romney changing his positions. Now Romney’s even backing away from his infamous “47 percent” comment. The president should not have been caught flat-footed like this, and it should not happen ever again.
5. Learn to Look as If You Actually Want to Be There
President George H.W. Bush was famously derided for looking at his watch during a presidential debate, which left pundits and some voters wondering if he felt he had some place more important to be than making his case to the American public. While President Obama did not look at his watch, he certainly did not look as if he was happy to be on that stage. Who can blame him? It was his anniversary — and, well, as Romney joked, a debate is not exactly the most romantic place to spend it.
Nevertheless, no one would go to a job interview and say, “Sorry I look distracted, but today’s my anniversary.” As much as I can understand the president wanting to spend that evening celebrating privately with his wife instead of with Romney and millions of voters watching on TV, he should not have looked that way. He looked glum, and at times disengaged.
Just as Tyra Banks used to tell contestants on America’s Next Top Model to practice facial expressions (such as smiling with your eyes) in front of a mirror, the president needs to practice looking patient and relaxed — even when he doesn’t feel that way.
I have a feeling Mitt Romney did, and it showed.