Democratic supporters of President Obama were looking for a forceful case for his reelection at Wednesday’s debate. Instead they saw the president withdrawn and in rambling mode, woefully unprepared to answer his opponent’s programmed assault. Having spent weeks rehearsing his lines, Romney overwhelmed Obama with a cascade of unsubstantiated claims enough to keep New York Times fact-checkers up until the wee hours. These claims begged to be rebutted on stage and then followed by a convincing alternative. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. In the aftermath, we are left with a presidential race that is much more in doubt than it was before.
So what can we learn from this missed opportunity? A lot, not only about the benefits of preparedness, but the importance of communication in overall strategy. Obama and, by extension, Democratic intellectuals in general have often demonstrated a tin ear and mediocre messaging skills in the way they relate to the American people. This lack of connection was very noticeable in the Colorado debate.
Three long-standing weaknesses stand out in the president’s performance. The first is an elitist, egg-headed attitude that assumes that reason will win out simply if all the facts are laid out in calm fashion. It overlooks the fact that politics are at least partly affective, being a function of the gut rather than strictly one of rational calculation. The intellectual approach gives far too much attention to wonkish details and too little to values, which are most effectively expressed in the language of conviction, empathy, and outrage. The wonkishness came out, for instance, in Obama’s stress on detailed exposition rather than pointed rebuttal. He tended to defend the intricacies of Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank regulations rather than exposing the damage Romney’s corporatist approach would inflict on our safety net and societal well-being. In so doing, he failed to present policies in terms that everyday Americans could understand viscerally.
Second, he made the common liberal mistake of not challenging opponents’ frames. The major frame adopted by Romney during the debate was the one about government being a noose around our necks and a burden on our children. It is inefficient, abusive, over-bearing, and just plain bad, threatening our liberties, our initiative, and our future. But how about the following: government assistance, intelligently focused, bolsters our liberties, our initiative, and our future. When government offers college loans at low rates, it helps people achieve their dream of independence. When it supports research (often too risky for private enterprise), it aids innovation. When it establishes financial regulation that requires transparency, it promotes efficiency. When it offers health care that relies on economies of scale and curtails emergency-room medicine for the poor, it reduces costs. And so forth. Bottom line: government can be good if we make it good. It’s the frame, stupid.
Third, Obama lets his desire to compromise interfere with his basic message. There is nothing wrong, of course, with compromise in the politics of a democracy. It is something the tea partiers, who seem bent on blowing up the system if their demands are not met, have yet to understand. But compromise should come only after one has laid out and fought for one’s positions. It should come late in the process, when ultimate decisions have to be made. If one is unwise enough to incorporate the positions and assumptions of one’s opponents in everyday talking points, as Obama so often does, it waters down one’s message. A clear example of this failing is Obama’s defense of government programs, on the one hand, while stating that he is perfectly willing to negotiate their demise, on the other. By seeming to be almost enthusiastic at arriving at a “grand” compromise, Obama trivializes the damage that would be caused to our safety net, our education system, our infrastructure, our energy innovation, and the like, which are at the center of his appeal. It legitimizes the Republican message of government overspending tied to an urgent deficit “crisis.” An effective counterargument would stress handling the deficit not by obliterating government programs but by improving government efficiencies, ending the overseas adventures that are so dear to Republicans, and raising more revenues from those who can justly afford it.
If there is a silver lining to the last debate, it is in demonstrating to Obama and his political team those things he needs to work on to be an effective communicator and political strategist. An advance in this regard will improve his game not only on the debate stage, but in the White House.