Category: Breaking News Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2012 09:09 Written by Perry Bacon Jr. and Caryn Freeman,Thegrio
His suit jackets were too big back then. His hair wasn’t as carefully trimmed. His ties had more patterns than the solid red or blue he deploys almost daily as president.
But cosmetics aside, President Obama, who will have his first one-on-one session with Mitt Romney on Wednesday, speaks and debates in a remarkably similar way to when he first arrived on the national scene in 2004. Obama’s careful mid-sentences pauses, professorial asides that include detailed references to history and data and style of highlighting agreements with his opponents then shifting to differences remains consistent from his encounters with Illinois Republican Alan Keyes back in 2004, then Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008 and now when he faces tough questioning during interviews.
The president is known for his soaring, optimistic rhetoric, but that largely comes from his speeches. By their nature of specific questions and a contest between candidates, debates require Obama to show different characteristics: sarcasm, combativeness, even indignation.
“While I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart,” Obama told Clinton in a January 2008 debate after his rival at the time suggested he had spoken favorably of Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in the 1990′s.
Obama’s style is not likely to shift. Like in 2004 and 2008, the president will face an opponent who is trailing and looking to alter a race in which Obama is the favorite. Obama, like in the past, won’t be looking to level new shots as much as he is playing defense.
And while his aides are urging the president to keep his answers short, that too is unlikely to happen. Obama’s answers became crisper from 2004 to the 2008 primaries and then he again improved in his brevity when facing McCain. But at the core, he likes to fill his answers with context and detail, not only explaining his policy but how he arrived at it.
The series of one-on-one debates in 2008 against Clinton during the Democratic primary, after all of the other candidates dropped out, are perhaps the best model for what will happen over the next month. Romney, like Clinton, is an experienced debater who thrived in a series of multi-candidate sessions during the primaries. Romney is likely to frequently interrupt the Obama frequently during the debates, as Clinton did.
The former Massachusetts governor, like Clinton back then, has been casting Obama as a hopeful idealist whose record does not match his rhetoric. And Romney, like Clinton, is viewed as less likable than Obama with voters. Romney must attack Obama but not make voters like him even less, something Clinton struggled with as well.
Obama faces two obvious challenges. Back in 2004, President George W. Bush seemed surprised and angered by the barbs that came from his opponent John Kerry in the first debate. Being elected president guarantees people treat you with a heavy amount of deference for three and half years, and Romney may criticize the president in a way he has not heard in years.
“Presidential incumbents are not used to someone challenging them and saying things to their face,” said Samuel Popkin, a University of California, San Diego professor who advised Jimmy Carter during his debates against Ronald Reagan in 1980. “They have spent four years in office and they think they know everything. When you’re president, you think you’re hearing from people how they’re really feeling. You’re not.”
But Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who has advised a number of the party’s presidential candidates on debates, said, “I don’t think the president will get irritated in this debate. I am sure his team is prepping him for that.”
What Obama may have to guard against most is an unprompted aside that draws attention away from the issues. In one of the 2008 debates, Clinton was asked why voters seemed to like Obama’s personality better. She said, “I don’t think I”m that bad.”
Unprompted, Obama then declared “you’re likable enough Hillary,” a comment some took to be a sarcastic jab at Clinton.
“I don’t think we are going to see that (in 2012) because he is very conscious of the environment in which the debates are taking place and he is conscious of that fact that this race is so close,” said Corey Ealons, a Democratic strategist who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign.
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