Atmospheric pressure: What Obama needs to do to win the Hofstra debate

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

In another life, before taking the veil of journalistic purity, I practiced the black arts of a political operative, including “debate prep.” (It was one of my favorite activities, because I often played the role of our opponent and got to hurl streams of invectives at our client.)  So I approach every campaign imagining myself in my old job asking, “What would I tell the candidate to do?”

Normally, nothing is easier than offering such advice. Every assertion leaves the (imaginary) opponent stunned into helpless silence or stammering like Ralph Kramden—“hamina hamina hamina"—in “The Honeymooners.”

But in the case of President Obama and the task he has tonight on Long Island, it’s different. Why? Because in the wake of the Debacle in Denver, much of the focus has been less on what Obama said at the first debate than on how he said it: He was looking down; he didn’t make eye contact; he seemed annoyed; he seemed unhappy; he didn’t seem to want to be there. 

If you’re part of the president’s inner circle, do you try to have Obama keep such “atmospherics” in mind during tonight’s debate?

On the one hand, it could lead to disaster. Nothing is more likely to distract a debater than a little voice in his or her head that says, “Be confident, but not arrogant; smile, but not when the talk is about terrorism, war or unemployment; be engaged, but don’t appear angry.”

Of course, atmospherics do matter, and not just because of the familiar criticism that debates value style over substance.

That criticism often starts with the half-century old notion that, in 1960, those who saw the Nixon-Kennedy debates on TV thought John F. Kennedy had won, while those who heard the debates on radio thought Richard Nixon had won. The assertion is that Kennedy’s tan triumphed over Nixon’s shoddy makeup job, and that the former’s body language was more reassuring.

A telling point—except that it’s a myth, resting on one dubious study. It ignores the possibility that radio listeners in 1960 were likely older and rural, and thus more favorably disposed toward Nixon.

But there is a bigger point to be made. Ask yourself, “Why, in a court case, are witnesses brought into a courtroom whenever possible, instead of just giving their testimony through depositions?” It’s because a jury is supposed to take into account “demeanor evidence”—how a witness comports herself on the stand. Does a witness hesitate? Avoid eye contact with the questioner? Laugh nervously? Get flustered and defensive?

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As West’s Encyclopedia of American Law puts it: “Demeanor evidence is quite valuable in shedding light on the credibility of a witness, which is one of the reasons why personal presence at trial is considered to be of paramount importance. … To aid a jury in its determination of whether or not it should believe or disbelieve particular testimony, it should be provided with the opportunity to hear statements directly from a witness in court whenever possible.”

Leaders have always understood the significance of such demeanor testimony. It’s why, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, George Washington took special care with his uniforms and often posed for portraits—it was to let his soldiers and the broader audience of colonists see him as a commander with the proper bearing.

It’s why Franklin D. Roosevelt always flashed that familiar smile—to project his own sense of confidence in the midst of a Depression that left millions of Americans doubting their own political system. (It’s also why he once told Orson Welles, “You and I are the two most famous actors in America.”)

Obama can’t ignore the impact of demeanor evidence. But it does impose a special burden on him, especially because the public and the press will be particularly attentive to his appearance. Every turn of his head, every extra blink of his eye will be subject to withering scrutiny. It’s one reason why, in earlier debates, the candidates insisted on no reaction or “cutaway” shots, and why the networks eventually said, in effect, “That’s our call, not yours.”

And that’s why, even in my fantasy world where every piece of advice I conjure up works like a charm, I imagine this advice to the president:

“Keep your head up, maintain eye contact, don’t frown, don’t grimace, show empathy with your questioner, engage Romney but don’t stalk him, gesture meaningfully and, oh yeah, be yourself.”