President Obama’s performance in the first debate was, unarguably, pretty lethargic, and he took a big hit in the polls shortly afterward. The general wisdom drawn from this, especially on the democratic side of the aisle, seemed to be that what was really needed in the debates was, thus, more aggression. Biden delivered this in his own unique way in the Veep debate, to such an extent that one wondered at times whether he would have to be removed from the stage in a straight jacket, still alternating between wild cackling and angry shouting, but at last he ran out of gas and calmed down in the last 20 minutes. Obama has a sense of personal dignity that Biden lacks, and so although he certainly came to the debate in a pugilistic frame of mind, he didn’t make himself silly in the way that Biden did. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the debate was supposed to feature the candidates answering questions directly from voters, it instead was most notable for intense bouts of the candidates rhetorically hammering each other.
The common wisdom is that this kind of thing turns undecided voters off. I saw some anecdotal evidence of this in the reactions of my less partisan friends on Facebook, one of whom posted in indignation:
Dear Gov Romney and Pres Obama,
Every time you keep talking when you are reminded that a normal citizen has a question for you, you reinforce that you think what you have to say is more important than the concerns of the people of your country. You both lost my vote tonight.
This aside, though, I think the focus on rhetorical dominance and aggression has probably been misplaced. Was it really that Obama’s performance in the first debate was so sluggish that cost him so much in the polls? I don’t think most Americans care whether the president is a skilled debater or not.
I think a lot of it is that in the first debate it became clear (and this second debate didn’t change that) that Obama doesn’t really have a second term agenda other than “ROMNEY IS SCARY!!” and “don’t change horses in mid stream”, while Romney laid out an apparently simple plan for improving the economy. (In some places I think it goes from simple to simplistic, but leave that aside for now.)
If that’s correct, anything that gets the real Romney up on stage rather than the Obama Campaign straw man version potentially helps Romney with that small group of voters who don’t already have a strong preference, and the “be more aggressive and call him a liar” advice that Obama has taken so much to heart really kind of misses the point. The problem for the President is that he’s mostly run against a phantom Romney of his own creation, and due to the disappointments of his first term, he’s done this almost entirely in place of actually running on a clear agenda. Not only is this somewhat disappointing for voters, but it is in utterly stark contrast with Obama’s first campaign, which was definitely long on “vision” and promised all sorts of sweeping changes that would make America better.
If it’s the “vision thing” which is really at issue, and not debating vigor, I don’t think we’ll see this more aggressive performance by Obama helping him much in the polls.