WASHINGTON – Both men relish the wonky talk in their own way. Mitt Romney, like an executive making a forceful sales pitch, shows an easy confidence that suits a presidential contender. Barack Obama sounds like a long-winded professor a tad annoyed at having to go over this stuff one more time for the students in the back of the room.
For viewers of this year’s first presidential debate one takeaway was clear – if you want detailed discussion of the issues, not just zingers, expect to sit through 90 minutes of some pretty dry stuff.
“The impression you leave with is, wow, this whole economy thing is complicated, and these are two people who are knowledgeable about the details,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M associate professor who studies political discourse. “That can only serve Romney well, because he looks as knowledgeable and presidential as Obama does.”
Other things learned from the first of three Romney-Obama matchups: When the pressure is on, Romney rises to the occasion. He knows how to accuse his opponent of deception while still sounding civil. With a thin lead in the polls, Obama prefers to play it safe and pull his punches.
Romney sounds smooth and in command. Obama’s style is sometimes halting, as if he’s pausing to reflect mid-sentence.
Viewers Wednesday night also learned that Romney can deploy a joke without sounding awkward. And he can maintain a pleasant half-smile for a heroic amount of time. Obama’s grin is toothy and sincere but rarely comes out onstage.
Neither man is gregarious or particularly warm; no Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton here. They share a managerial style of leadership and the assurance and self-regard of Harvard men. Each can seem prickly when challenged. But Romney controlled it better.
“I think Romney did it just right. He was aggressive without being perceived as annoying or disrespectful,” said Robert Denton Jr., head of the Communications Department at Virginia Tech.
With Obama, Denton said, “There was a little bit of a tone there, a little bit of an edge. He sounded a little frustrated at times in terms of the forcefulness of the explanation.”
The rivals’ next two outings will be different, no doubt.
Reacting to the harsh reviews, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod was already saying on Thursday that his team would “take a hard look at this” and “make adjustments” in the president’s debate strategy.
The format of the town hall-style debate on Oct. 16 may favor Obama, who appears relaxed at such events as president and is rated more likable and empathetic than Romney in opinion polls.
Likewise, the foreign policy and national security debate on Oct. 22 would seem to play into Obama’s area of expertise as president. But it could also dovetail nicely with Romney’s efforts to assail Obama’s handling of the Mideast and the war in Afghanistan.
In Wednesday’s domestic policy debate, Romney demonstrated he can boil down his points in simple, pragmatic language. He delighted in labeling Obama’s vision “trickle-down government.” He talked in numerical lists, with constant references to “my No. 1 principle,” part two of the plan, a third area of disagreement, seeming just on the verge of turning to a PowerPoint screen.
Obama, in contrast, sometimes seemed momentarily lost as he lapsed into his trademark pauses during long answers, such as his criticism of Romney’s proposal for helping people with pre-existing conditions keep health insurance coverage.
“He’s not a Bill Clinton. Clinton was the explainer in chief at the Democratic convention, taking complex issues and explaining them so people understand,” said Rita Kirk, a Southern Methodist University professor who studies campaign communications. “That doesn’t seem to be Obama’s particular gift. More to the point, it seemed to be Romney’s gift last night.”
While Romney pounded away at Obama over the nation’s slow economic recovery and high unemployment, Obama didn’t raise many of the criticisms he deploys against his rival in campaign speeches and advertising. No mention of Romney’s remarks about “47 percent of Americans” who depend on government aid and won’t take responsibility for their lives. Nor did Obama bring up women’s health issues or immigration reform, or talk about Romney’s wealth and use of offshore investments.
“I’m dumbfounded,” said Denton, who has coached mayoral and gubernatorial candidates in debate skills. “I don’t understand it from a political perspective, a debate perspective or a strategic perspective, unless it is just do no harm. Let’s ride it out and play it safe.”
Viewers saw that Romney was willing to take bigger risks. He may have gone too far once, declaring he wanted to end federal subsidies for PBS, including even Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
“We learned that he wasn’t concerned about Big Bird,” said Mercieca. “That might be the one thing we remember about this debate.”