In a cover story for The Atlantic, James Fallows looked forward to the Romney-Obama debates. He noted the President’s disadvantages.
As a campaigner and orator, Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. But the great danger for Obama is a set of debates (not to mention an entire campaign) that follows the 1980 pattern.
In this year’s debates, Barack Obama’s most inspiring and powerful message as a candidate will no longer be available to him. Four years ago, “Change we can believe in” suggested that things could be different and much better with him in charge. Now even his most fervent backers doubt how much better things are likely to get in a second Obama term. His critics put the same point more harshly. “This time, the president won’t have the luxury of making stuff up and speaking aspirationally,” Tim Pawlenty told me on a campaign swing through Pennsylvania with Romney in June. “He actually has to defend his record and attach facts to it.”
One more factor is working against Obama in the debates. When the economy is bad and an incumbent is beset, the challenger’s task is simplified. He doesn’t need to belabor the case against the incumbent. Reality has already done that; everyone knows what’s wrong with the president they have now. All the challenger has to do is say: “Look me over. I’ll be okay in this job. You can feel comfortable with me.” This is what Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile, the incumbent has to work twice as hard, in order to make two arguments at once. He must prove something about himself: that, while battered, he’s still energetic, visionary, and up to the job. He must also prove something about his opponent: that he is bad for the country, unready, and overall worse.
And he must do all this without seeming defensive or tense; while appearing easily in command to those who see images without hearing words; and, in Obama’s uniquely straitjacketed case, while avoiding the slightest hint of being an “angry black man.” A carefully deployed flash of anger can be an important debating tool for the right candidate—one who doesn’t seem, Dole- or Gingrich-like, to be irritable overall. Bill Clinton gave one example in 1992 during a primary debate, after Jerry Brown accused him of favoring Hillary Clinton’s law firm with Arkansas state business. Clinton shot back, furious: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.” It worked because it seemed genuine and was not Clinton’s standard tone. Racial imagery gives Barack Obama much less leeway for even justified rage, and he has disciplined himself to avoid such displays. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President” on this subject.)
If economic trends are bad enough—or, improbably, good enough—to turn the election into a runaway, we might look back and say that the debates didn’t matter. But in what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive, and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference.
The conventional wisdom is that incumbents tend to win presidential elections. But their record is much less impressive in the televised debate era. It could just be due to something else, as this is a small sample set limited to the Presidents after Nixon. Ford, Carter and George HW Bush lost to challengers, while George W Bush had a narrow win over Kerry. Reagan and Clinton are the only Presidents who went through televised debates during their reelection bids, and still had commanding victories.
The results are similar if you consider the candidates who ran to succeed Presidents from their own party: Richard Nixon in 1960, George HW Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000, and John McCain in 2008. Nixon and Gore lost narrow elections. George HW Bush was the only non-incumbent to keep the White House for his party in the debate era, and his margin of victory was pretty much the same as McCain’s margin of defeat.
As Fallows noted, the debates provide advantages to the challenger.
“The history is that challengers tend to profit, particularly in the first debate,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, told me in June. “Just the act of being on the stage with a president is an elevating thing.” This sounds like a small matter, but through the years, analysis of debate reactions has shown that the public takes a candidate more seriously after seeing him, for the first time, on equal footing with an incumbent president. The most famous example here, and the one whose implications are most ominous for Obama, is the sole debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Every objective factor was working against Carter at that point: the economy was terrible, his attempted rescue mission to free American hostages in Iran had been a disastrous failure, he’d had to fend off a challenge in his own party by Teddy Kennedy. But still the polls showed a very close race between Carter and Reagan, until that debate, just one week before Election Day. Reagan’s sunny demeanor—loose and expansive, while Carter was tight and tense—apparently reassured voters who had given up on Carter but worried that Reagan was too extreme. Tracking-poll results changed immediately. A week later, Reagan carried 44 states.
There’s been some speculation about the expectations game, as both campaigns tried to remind the media of their opponent’s skills. The Romney campaign is down a few points, so they’ve had to emphasize the possibility of a great performance in order to distract from disappointing poll numbers. Fortunately for them, it doesn’t seem to have set expectations for their candidate all that high. According to a Washington Post- ABC News poll, voters expect the President to win by a nearly two to one margin. Perhaps it’s difficult to lower expectations for a candidate who has already won one presidential election.