Four debate pointers for President Obama

With the second Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Willard Mitt Romney around the corner and the third debate just six days later, President Obama should follow these four time-tested principles of successful political communication to gain the debate advantage:

1. Go On Offense

Attacking rather than defending worked for Sun Tzu, and it worked for the Republicans in the 2010 Congressional elections and many others. Republicans always attack, whether on Libya, Solyndra or “Obamacare,” because, as Romney himself said, “if you’re responding, you’re losing.” When Romney attacks Obama in the debate, as he’ll do over and over, Obama needs to avoid explaining from a defensive position, and take to counter-punching.

2. Go Short

There were several instances in President Obama’s last debate with Romney, for example, Obama’s response to Romney’s “unelected board” (a/k/a “death panel”) attack on “Obamacare,” where viewers may have thought they were in a college seminar. Bad idea. At debates or any other time when engaging in political communication, shorter is better. Most Americans are too busy working, making ends meet, maybe catching a ball game on tv or keeping up with the Kardashians, to delve deeply into policy matters.

The Republicans know this. Why do you think most of the memorable political catch phrases — “death panels,” “pro-life,” etc., come from Republicans? Democrats must learn to do a better job with their catch phrases — “War On Women” is a great but rare example — and the next Presidential debate would be an excellent place for President Obama both to keep his answers short and snappy, and to incorporate memorable catch phrases.

3. Go Human

Especially in the town hall format of the next debate, where audience members will question the candidates directly, President Obama must be as empathetic as possible. Again, Professor Obama style won’t be successful here. Remember that famous moment in the 1988 Presidential debate, when Michael Dukakis was asked what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered? Dukakis’ cold, technocratic answer all but sunk his presidential hopes.

Here, however, President Obama has an advantage. He’s physically relaxed and graceful, which will really help when walking around the town hall debate to address different audience members. Additionally, when Obama breaks out of Professor Obama mode, he can be the most empathetic guy in the room. In contrast, Romney can be quite stiff and robotic, so it will be a challenge for Romney to rise to the occasion here.

This human connection also requires politicians to tell a good story, and to fit their attacks on their opponents into larger narratives. For example, Obama can say that Romney’s policies would throw more Americans out of work, and that such policies fit Romney’s long record of throwing Americans out of work at Bain Capital, urging in 2007 that the U.S. auto industry should “go bankrupt” (which would have cost about a million American jobs), and even saying “I like to fire people.”

4. Go Happy

The last thing Americans want is a dour president. Remember Jimmy Carter‘s “great malaise” fiasco? Instead, Americans want a happy warrior. Ronald Reagan personified the happy warrior, and Reagan really enjoyed delivering that famous “there you go again” line against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential debate. Likewise, Vice President Joe Biden was masterful at delivering withering attacks with a smile and a joke against Paul Ryan at the recent Vice Presidential debate, at one point even saying, “I love my friend here.”

President Obama should take a lesson from one of the most famous happy warriors, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he combined all of the elements above to deliver a brutal attack against Republicans in this famous 1936 speech, all with a story and a smile.

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