Analysis: Failure to communicate

Obama's usually-robust communication skill proved his greatest shortcoming in the first presidential debate.

Obama stands for moment of silence 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Obama stands for moment of silence 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
WASHINGTON – When US President Barack Obama has been asked to acknowledge shortcomings of his time in office, he has often pinned problems on his failure to effectively communicate his policies – ranging from Middle East peace-making to economic programs – to the public.
Critics would charge that the substance of these policies also played a role, and at any rate that such an explanation is perplexing for someone whose oratory was so essential to his rise to the pinnacle of power in America.
But during the first 2012 presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday night, it was indeed Obama’s ability to communicate that wasn’t adequate.
Republicans, Democrats, pundits and private citizens all agreed: GOP candidate Mitt Romney trounced the president.
A CNN poll of viewers found that 67 percent of registered voters surveyed believed Romney did better while only 25% thought Obama did, a margin so wide it means that many of those intending to vote for the Democratic candidate gave the victory to his rival.
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The Washington Post front page Thursday proclaimed, “Romney takes fight to Obama,” and the Boston Globe declared, “Romney goes on offense.” Even many Democratic analysts and allies called the debate for Romney.
Longtime Democratic strategist James Carville described Obama on CNN as looking like “he didn’t want to be there.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked, “Where was Obama tonight?” Even top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod admitted to reporters, “Governor Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance and we will give him credit for that.”
Few if any of those piling on Obama pointed to problems with his policies or priorities, though Republican partisans surely took issue with much of what he said.
Instead, the post-debate dissection focused almost entirely on how he acted: getting defensive but not challenging Romney, sounding professorial rather than relatable, looking down instead of at his opponent. In short, for not only not landing punches but for not even taking a swing.
This critique of Obama represents a new front in the campaign.
Until now, Obama’s weaknesses have had to do with the sluggish US economy, frustration with health care reform and the spiraling debt.
It hasn’t been personal; it’s been about Obama the president, not Obama the man.
But the debate disparaging was about him personally. It was about his passivity, his impatience, his demeanor.
As it happens, these were the very traits that his prep team had flagged for him and advised him to adjust before taking the podium, according to several news reports. Apparently to no avail.
So while Obama’s lackluster performance is sure to galvanize his campaign, and might even help the president’s quest in the long run if it shakes him from complacency, it raises the question of how much he’ll be able to improve next time out.
The town hall set-up of the next debate is seen as a format that Obama does well in, so that could give him a boost. And the final two debates are slated to be held largely on ground that has been firmer for the president than the economy – foreign policy and social issues, though the economy is sure to rear its head in both.
But despite Obama’s high approval ratings on national security, he was already going to have to play some defense as crises in the Middle East have swelled.
In addition to the events overseas, which have included the assassination of America’s ambassador to Libya and raging anti-American protests throughout the region, the administration’s failure to immediately acknowledge al- Qaida’s apparent role in the violence has been interpreted as a desire by Obama not to dilute his national security trump card: the killing of Osama bin Laden, which the administration had previously described as decimating his terror organization.
Romney is already trying to use these developments to gain an advantage with a major foreign policy address scheduled for Monday.
Romney was widely credited with handily winning Wednesday’s debate, and thereby reinvigorating a flagging campaign that had been declining – some felt irredeemably – in the polls.
His performance was enough to turn around that narrative if not all the poll results.
While Romney is now for the first time viewed positively by a majority of voters, at 51% according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, Obama didn’t lose any ground. He remained above Romney at 56%.
But Romney gained more than a sweep of the news cycle and much-needed momentum. He gained a new vulnerability to hammer Obama on.
Tune in next week to see how much he’s taking advantage of it.