October 3, 2012

The Optics of the First Romney – Obama Debate: Obama's Grin, and Paying For It

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I’m sure some people would explain it as Obama sticking to the high road. Or protecting a lead. Or being overly concerned, if he was more aggressive, about looking like the angry black man. But then, my sense is that Obama just didn’t take Romney seriously — at all.

What stood out as particularly significant was how often, and at inappropriate times, Obama would flash that usually wide grin, particularly when Romney offered statements that were over-the-top. It had the quality of “you can’t seriously believe that, can you?” Obama’s expression also having the faint (and wishful) echo of Reagan’s “there you go again.”

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The thing is, though, Romney kept his temper in check enough that he didn’t seem that belligerent, often exhibiting that unfamiliar and, I’m sure well-practiced, doe-eyed expression. (What probably also helped keep his temperature down was how easily he intimidated, and thus neutralized the moderator by Jim Lehrer.)

What I tweeted at the end of the night was that Obama was too gracious by half, Obama displaying deference which just seemed out of place. I’m thinking a little differently about it now, though.

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What with all the instances where Obama seemed to agree with Romney, or let him off the hook, I think what we were seeing in Obama was actually an obsequiousness. Harking back to some of the early Democratic debates and encounters with Hillary, it looked to me like Obama was actually (watch the chin) demonstrating a haughtiness — as if the President went into the debate feeling that Romney just wasn’t that viable, thus worth the effort.

Obama Michelle post debate Denver 2012

As a result, it looked like Obama wasn’t ready for prime time. The post-debate scene was particularly indicative of how flat-footed the President was last night. Chip Somodevilla captured it brilliantly in the photo above (which I really doubt will be published anywhere, it’s that cringe-worthy) of Romney firmly ensconced at the podium while the President and the First Lady are awkwardly looking for direction.

Beyond that, consider the power dynamics on stage immediately after the debate concluded:

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You have relative parity in this first photo, though the Romney’s “family tap” is already on.

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Notice how the action shifts right, even if simply based on numbers. Even still, there are the Obama’s looking like the guests at a Romney bar-b-que.

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I like this image because, in the whole power mix, Romney (and his family, too) packaged their competitiveness with a friendly face.

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Finally, if Romney has been weak during the campaign in terms of detail and finishing touches, what topped things off, given how fast the Obamas made their exit, was the Romney clan holding down the stage.

I guess the expression of a coach or a superior officer in this instance would be: wipe that grin off your face! Next round, hopefully Obama will find it in him to take Romney seriously.

(screen shots: C-SPAN. photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images caption: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks on as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) stands with his wife and First lady Michelle Obama after the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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