Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What I'll be looking for in tonight's debate: authenticity

It seems as though we've completely given up on the idea of measuring a debate based on content and instead are much more concerned about the theater of it all. I think that is a very telling indictment of our culture. But it is what it is.

Today the internet is full of advice for President Obama on what he needs to do in the debate. I would suggest that most of that is focused on what would please the particular pundit or partisan who is expressing their opinion. In other words, what most of these folks are suggesting is that the President needs to do/say what THEY want to hear. They've had it up to their eyeballs with Romney's lies and flip-floping. They're mad about that and want some punches thrown.

But there are several problems with this kind of advice.

The real audience for this debate is not the pissed off partisan. Those folks already know who they're going to vote for and one debate is not going to change their minds.  So I would suggest that the President won't be taking their advice about what they want to hear.

Secondly, I haven't heard any of these advice-givers acknowledge the one important difference between this debate and the last one - the format. In both the first presidential debate and the only vice-presidential debate, the candidates were speaking to each other and/or the moderator. This one will be a town hall format and the candidates will be speaking directly to voters. That changes the dynamic completely. Much of the advice we're hearing tends to focus on fixing things people think the President did/didn't do last time rather than acknowledging the difference.

Finally, all of the advice misses the one most important thing that President Obama needs to communicate tonight...authenticity. As we saw with Paul Ryan's stunt yesterday, that is his most powerful tool against the Romney/Ryan ticket. He actually knows what he's talking about - and cares. They're too busy faking it.

President Obama has expended a tremendous amount of energy over these last 4 years trying to keep himself from being consumed in the Washington bubble. He does that by reading at least 10 letters from ordinary Americans every night, visiting people in their homes/small businesses, having dinners with supporters and - to the dismay of the DC villagers - avoiding too much backslapping with them. I'd suggest that he does all that in order to keep his heart attuned to what really matters and why he chose to do this job in the first place.

That's the well he will be drawing from tonight.


  1. Good Morning, SP! I am with you fully on this one. The President's authenticity doesn't need photo-ops at election time because as you so rightly note his heart is 'attuned to what really matters' and he has worked over the years to keep it so. I have no advice to give President Obama going into tonight except 'Be yourself, Mr. President!'

    Enjoy your day, SP!

  2. One of Obama's "liabilities" is that he retains a level of authenticity that is at odds with how our media/politics operates. He seems to me to be in some ways from a different time. He reads books, for example. He does not like to rush. He would prefer to stay at home with the family than go out on the town. I imagine these qualities cost him 4-5 points in polls, because of how these factors hinder his ability to fully play the role our media creates for the presidency. Bill Clinton is temperamentally the opposite.

    Obviously, from my point of view these are all assets.

    1. Exactly...Obama is basically an introvert. And that's a very real liability in our current culture of media/politics.

      I suspect that in his heart of hearts he has a certain amount of disdain for the superficial. And occasionally it shows. That's why the key for him is in being authentic in his empathy.

    2. One of the reasons I a) like the president b) find him interesting and c) basically trust him is because he strikes me as someone who is extraordinarily sensitive. I identify with this and it's interesting to me the various ways that very sensitive people develop so they can actually function in the world. I don't get any impression that there is any falseness in Obama's relentless positivity, but I also imagine that it has a function for him personally. Aside from being the best president of my lifetime, he's a very interesting figure. He doesn't fit the type.

  3. I just wanted to de-lurk to thank you Smarty for being so positive, so clear-hearted throughout all this muddle. I read your blog every day and appreciate so much your thoughtfulness, intelligence and writing ability. I agree 100% that what President Obama "needs" to do is to continue to be himself. As if it was up to pundits to tell him what he needs to do. As if.

    1. Thanks regina!!!

      One of the ways I try to diffuse my own confusion when this stuff starts raining is to try to find my center and write. When folks like you let me know that they're with me, it calms me too. We're all in this together!

    2. The President has a writer's personality -- sensitive, introverted & lives a lot inside his head. But his ability to keep it real is a big strength.

      My concern though is the vapidity of Americans. H.L. Mencken's quote about how you can never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the American people holds as true today as it did when he said it 70 or 80 years ago. Hopefully, enough Americans will have a moment of clarity tonight and ultimately re-elect the President.