Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SPEAKING....After every Democratic debate I always get one or two emails from people asking me if Barack Obama was off his game. The answer is usually no. It's just the way he is. In debates he has a tendency to stutter and stammer a bit and his answers usually aren't as sharp as they could be.

After the last email I got along these lines it occurred to me just how unlucky this is for Obama. And for the rest of us too. Consider.

Obama is frequently outstanding at giving speeches to large crowds. And that's a great skill for a president to have. Unfortunately, very few people, especially outside the early primary states, get to see Obama giving a speech.

He's also really good in small groups, and again, that's a great skill for a president to have since presidents are constantly meeting legislators, foreign leaders, and various interest group brokers in small groups to try to hash out deals. Unfortunately, again, very few people ever get to see Obama in this setting.

And then there are the debates. This is a completely artificial format, one that presidents never engage in, so having slightly mediocre debate skills really doesn't mean a thing. But it's the one format where millions of people see him.

I'm not really going anywhere with this. Just observing that Obama appears to be very good at the things that help a president and not so good at the ones that don't matter. But it's only the latter that we see. That's kind of a drag, isn't it?

UPDATE: As a counterpoint, Ari Melber points out at The Nation that Obama's Sunday address at Ebenezer Baptist Church has been viewed 268,000 times (and counting) on YouTube. I think my general point still stands, but it's certainly true that more people are able to view political speeches today than they were a few years ago.

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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Comments

Yes it is.

Posted by: RollaMO on January 23, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

My God, he's actually thinking about the question!!! I didn't think he was off his game at all. Different styles.

Posted by: urbanlegend on January 23, 2008 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

This is reason #5,000,080 to scrap the current debate format. One simple rule would go the furthest -- no one may ever speak for less than 30 seconds. That would kill off the two most annoying parts of debates -- sloganeering and interrupting. If you can't defend your idea using multiple, complete sentences, then you're engaging in propaganda, not debate.

Posted by: tom veil on January 23, 2008 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Alas.

Posted by: Lucy on January 23, 2008 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

And you know why I think this is? If you watch the candidates while another candidate is speaking, you usually see Obama looking at the speaker, listening intently. Watching Edwards and Clinton usually shows them looking downwards, obviously preparing their answer to the same question. I don't mind either approach but I do think it plays a part in Obama's occasional stammer. As a matter of fact, this was one of my earliest impressions once the debates started. I guess I'd have to rewatch a debate and check the listening behavior of each candidate to be able to prove what is at this point only a personal impression.

Posted by: nepeta on January 23, 2008 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

What tom said above. Those early debates with lots of candidates, tight response time limits, and no followup from the questioner like: "you evaded my question by answering a very different question, what is your answer to MY question?".

The most recent debates have been a bit better, because candidates have had a little longer to answer, but they still don't allow for a real display of their knowledge (or lack thereof). Also you still see candidates launching into their pre-reheared answer to the question they wanted to be asked instead of the one they were given.

Posted by: bigTom on January 23, 2008 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

It's relative. He happens to be sharing these forums two individuals who excel in that format, so I'm not so sure that it's accurate to refer to him as "not so good."

Posted by: junebug on January 23, 2008 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

That's only true, of course, if you are under the misimpression that debates mean much of anything to present-day voters. I contend that they don't. The only thing they can do is hurt a candidate if he or she makes a big mistake in one. Other than that? No one really cares. No one in the room is up for grabs. It changes virtually no undecided minds among those watching on TV. It largely reinforces the conceptions people came in with. I guess it makes the networks some money though.

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Man this is a pile of rubbish Kevin! Obama to my ear and eye is simply a great speaker, whether in debate or in speech. You offer up zip evidence that he stumbles and fumbles in debate settings, and until you present some seriously credible evidence (beyond a few seconds of hemming), I will consider this post a feeble excuse for blogging. I know you are getting lots of comments when you post about Obama, but that's not much of a reason to post when you've no evidence to support your post! And furthermore, as I near the end of Obama's 'Dreams From My Father' masterpiece, I can, as an author myself, state unequivocally that Obama's writing skills are far, far beyond any politician's I've ever read, and way beyond your everyday novelist. The book is one of the best pieces of writing I've ever read. B.O. is an amazingly talented individual.

Posted by: Dilbert on January 23, 2008 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

"Masterpiece?"

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

So why not demand real debates, instead of joint press conferences -- 30 minutes to the opener and 30 minutes to rebut, then 10 minutes each to follow up.

Posted by: the guy on January 23, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with your premise, Kevin. Because nearly every speech Obama gives is captured on video and posted on the Internet somewhere, a lot of us have seen every speech he's made since he announced his candidacy. But I for one have not watched more than 10 minutes of any of the 2,873 presidential debates.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on January 23, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Dilbert: I'm an Obama fan, but I have noticed the little stammers. They are usually pretty little ones -maybe a half second long, so they are easy for a sympathetic listener to overlook. It might just be that he is checking the next phrase in his mind before uttering it. That may not be a bad habit, if it avoids embarassing utterances.

Posted by: bigTom on January 23, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, it is a drag. On the other hand you can view the Reno video for example if you are interested in seeing how he works in a small group.

And that skill in that small group, where he was trying to make a point about a skill Reagan had, is apparently now on the air in a dishonest Clinton ad in SC.

WaPo gave Clinton two pinnochios for her debate performance. Apparently she could care less. The way I look at it, when a Clinton talks, a lie is always a good choice. And apparently, from the CNN video of Bill napping, occasionally waking up and nodding in agreement with the speaker at an MLK day event, they even lie in their sleep.

Posted by: Manfred on January 23, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of lying...oh, we weren't? OK, this is interesting in any case:

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President George W. Bush and his top officials ran roughshod over the truth in the run-up to the Iraq war lying a total of 935 times, a study released Wednesday found.

Bush and his then secretary of state Colin Powell made the most false statements as they sought to drum up support for the March 2003 invasion to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the study alleged.

In a damning report, the Center for Public Integrity found "935 false statements by eight top administration officials that mentioned Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, or links to Al-Qaeda, on at least 532 separate occasions."

"Bush and seven of his administration's top officials methodically propagated erroneous information over the two years beginning on September 11, 2001," the center said.

"These false statements dramatically increased in August 2002, just prior to congressional consideration of a war resolution and during the critical weeks in early 2003 when the president delivered his State of the Union address and Powell delivered his memorable presentation to the UN Security Council," the CPI added.

Posted by: nepeta on January 23, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

How does someone with this pedigree:
Education:
- Graduated: Columbia University (1983) - Major: Political Science
- Law Degree from Harvard (1991) - Major: J.D. - Magna Cum Laude
- Attended: Occidental College

manage to avoid developing debate skills? Lawyers are supposed to be nimble of mind, quick on their feet, articulate and able to spar with an intellectual adversary their equal or even their superior. It is suspect he does as poorly as he does in the debate format. Can you graduate Columbia and Harvard in the fields of study he pursued and not be required to take debate? A puzzle for sure.

Posted by: steve duncan on January 23, 2008 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

I have watched most of the debates and have to say that I think Barack obama comes across as thoughtful. Frankly, I would rather listen to Obama's measured and thoughtful answer than the 15th repeat of the talking points John's debate coach has drilled into his head.

Of course, I never did like high school debate which has more to do with repeating crap than with engaging in real communication.

Posted by: corpus juris on January 23, 2008 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin's got it right.

Posted by: lampwick on January 23, 2008 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

corpus juris, Absolutely right!

Posted by: nepeta on January 23, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

You know what? I thought GW lost those debates versus Kerry way back when. I remember being ecstatic...so what happened after that?

I dunno, I have to wonder about the relevancy of the debates. Maybe they were different candidates, but....

Posted by: Boorring on January 23, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

I don't have a favorite Dempcrat yet--I'd be pleased to vote for any of them--but I did have the experience of hearing Hillary Clinton operate in a relatively small-group setting two years ago. I was surprised at how very effective she was. In the formal part of her presentation, she was totally in command, with a mass of detail at her fingertips. But in the Q&A that followed, I was very impressed with how quick and funny she was. After impressing the crowd, she went on to charm them. In person, she comes across as softer, and more likeable than I had anticipated.

Posted by: paul gottlieb on January 23, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick!
My daily read of this blog & comments is usually highlighted by the witty & superbly funny posts by you (& Kevin of course). I know you can't be "on" of the time, but do you have my fix for today? Or is it in the comments of another post? Please advise.

Charisma really helps you get elected in this country, in my opinion. Whether in debates or not, I know not.

Russingly Yours,
CJBS

Posted by: Craig Johnson's Brother's Son on January 23, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Alas, perhaps another reason Evita Soundbite has been resurrected.

Posted by: Traven on January 23, 2008 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

Presidents don't do debates, true enough, but they do perform in Press Conferences. And those performances are important.

Posted by: barry on January 23, 2008 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

I strongly support Obama, but I too have noticed this problem.

In fact, I have a name for it: debate induced retardation.

If only he debated like Edwards!

Posted by: Qwerty on January 23, 2008 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an Obama supporter, and I find his stammering and halting speech annoying. I'm glad to hear that he's better in other formats.

I don't think too much of Edwards debating skills. I don't necessarily think he is a phony, but he sure is good at coming across like one.

Hillary really excels at these debates. I can't think of any candidate who is better.

Posted by: Jim W on January 23, 2008 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

I'm going to make a confession here:

I haven't watched a single debate, Democratic or Republican.

That's what Kevin Drum is good for, right?

:-)

Posted by: David W. on January 23, 2008 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that he's not at his best in the debate format, in the sense that he pauses, speaks slowly and deliberately, and does stammer a bit. And he is not good at delivering glib and punchy 10-second sound-bites that can be replayed to support a talking-head's claim that he "won" the debate. But I actually find his debate performances heartening, because you can see that he is thinking on his feet and giving more meaningful and textured responses. And if you read the text of his comments the next day, they're almost always better than they sounded right at the time.

Posted by: twc on January 23, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

This is probably a heretical question do ask, but does "debate" performance actually have a lot to do with electoral success in this present era? Outside of the political junky class (us), are a lot of people paying attention? In the last general, most viewers apparently felt the Kerry won at least two of the three debates.

Posted by: AmericanWillBe on January 23, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

If Obama is great at giving speeches to large crowds, perhaps he should schedule some in California. How about the Los Angeles Coliseum? (Naah, too big, but you get the idea.)

Posted by: Paul H. on January 23, 2008 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK
....you usually see Obama looking at the speaker....nepeta at 3:13 PM
Actually, you usually see all looking at the speaker when the speaker, looking down, looking at the moderator, etc Obama may just not be the quickest on his feet and is notably better with rehearsed speeches or using a Teleprompter.

It was obviously a rehearsed moment when Obama leveled his Wal-mart charge and was clearly nonplused by her counter. I think she did him a favor: she could have come back by mentioning his high school peccadilloes. At least now he will have to develop a convincing response. So far, all he is doing is to try to minimize his political dealing with Rezko and that really won't cut it.

I recall his response to a question on driver's licences for illegal aliens during which he stumbled, stammered and failed to answer.
Sometimes an enormous amount of self-esteem and belief in one's entitlement aren't sufficient.

.... he was trying to make a point about a skill Reagan had....Posted by: Manfred at 3:26 PM
The fact that you are still desperately trying to spin that is telling, even more telling that Obama's professed admiration. As for the Washington Post, they are as anti-Clinton as The New York Times or Chris Matthews etal. Only Republicans and Obama shills take those seriously. Posted by: Mike on January 23, 2008 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

Do you know what else is important for a president, and less important for a candidate?

To know policy inside and out, from the high-level vision to the small-bore details. That hardly ever comes out in a debate, or even a speech, and Lord knows is never covered by the media (who are more likely to write snarkily about how such details bore the voters).

Kind of too bad for Hillary Clinton, eh?

Posted by: Steve on January 23, 2008 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

This is the first debate I have seen at any length and I have to admit, I was very much let down by Obama's style. Yes, lots of hemming and gestures. Clinton seemed more on point as did Edwards. At times it seemed like Obama was just trying to get the most camera time and with Blitzer not enforcing any kind of rules, I think he did.

Can you think of another person who is praised for their speeches but has pitiful debating presenece? hmmmmm....lets see....

Posted by: Les Ismore on January 23, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

I think Hillary is very smart but her answers to virtually any question in any public format are measured and BORING. Kind of like Condi Rice--pathologically afraid to say anything off-message. Obama is very eloquent and has much more charisma. Not that charisma should be the sole factor for choosing a presidential candidate, but there's no denying his inspirational skills.

Remember GWB--about the ONLY format he excels in is the small group. He sucks at speeches, he sucks at debate, he can't think on his feet. And yet half of American voters went for him twice in a row. Go figure.

Posted by: Jeff from WI on January 23, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Q. What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?

A. The same middle name.

Posted by: lampwick on January 23, 2008 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

In debates he has a tendency to stutter and stammer a bit and his answers usually aren't as sharp as they could be.

—Kevin Drum

Two words: PREPARATION and DISCIPLINE. Winning the debate requires a game plan and sticking to it. If he is going to attack, he has to do it FIRST, with an attack that will put in context everything that his opponents say thereafter. If he is going to stay on message, he has to fend off the first attack with his version of "there you go again." And then stick to it.

He can't get caught in between. Attack and completely destroy or stay completely above the fray. Tit for tat does not suit him. He and his staff should have known that HRC was laying for him, to drag him down, off his message. He should have been ready for it. He wasn't.

I heard someone compliment him as a good counterpuncher. Counterpunching with the Clintons??? FATAL ERROR!

Once again, he should have said at the outset: Just how bad do you want to be president, Hillary? At this point, you'll say just about anything, won't you?

Posted by: Econobuzz on January 23, 2008 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Doesn't it say something about his inability to think fast, and respond quickly to new info? Doesn't it say a lot about how he is when he's not scripted? (see that NYT article about his speechwriter--Obama's fabulous speeches usually aren't even his) Isn't it weird that he's such a slow thinker and responder and meanders so much, esp given that he's not old at all? (it reminds me of Kerry, and not in a good way)

Posted by: amberglow on January 23, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Rep. Kucinich does not have these debating problems.

Posted by: Brojo on January 23, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but could you have a beer with him?

Posted by: Voice of Reason on January 23, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

Can't say I've even noticed these characteristics.

Obama comes across as a very accomplished debater to me. His answers are often delivered in paragraphs that are well-constructed, with the lead sentence perfectly introducing his answer.

Of course, Edwards and Clinton are also good, but off-hand, I would have said Obama is their equal. Plus his voice has a nice tenor.

I'll watch for these things next time.

Posted by: little ole jim on January 23, 2008 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

This is a chacun son gout sort of thing, Kevin

Yes, Obama hems and haws. I see that too. But I also see his effort to answer the question posed. He gets points for that effort in my book. His affect is thoughtful. And I like that.

Does Obama lose some of the ADHD crowd in the first five seconds? Sure. My sense is that he eventually finds his rhythm and his conclusion and it's usually worth the wait.

A B+ and showing lots of promise.


John Edwards is the best debater. On point. Persuasive. Answers the question but pushes his own message too. A+

Hillary Clinton stays on her message with discipline and has recently mastered the "Iron Chef" glare (hat tip to leo on the other Obama-Hillary thread). Very impressive. Demerits for willful distortions and dishonesty. A C+

Posted by: paxr55 on January 23, 2008 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

This is very relevant, i think--Feldman: "His performance last night raises a serious question without a clear answer: How can a Presidential candidate bring change if he is so easily thrown off message by his opponents?" -- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-feldman/can-obama-get-back-on-mes_b_82634.html

He was so very easily thrown off message (surprisingly easily, i think) and on the defensive, and he still isn't back on message, or back on offense even today.

Posted by: amberglow on January 23, 2008 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

Obama explains this in his Audacity book. When debating Keyes, he said that his friends criticized him for not going for the jugular. And Obama basically answered that he couldn't stop wondering what exactly it was like to have Keyes' perspective on the world, and that there were one or two things amidst all the bs that he found hard to refute. Anyway, that's clearly what goes wrong in his current debates: he thinking, where in the world is this woman coming from, and, there must be something here that isn't complete nonsense.

Posted by: lampwick on January 23, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK
I thought GW lost those debates versus Kerry way back when. I remember being ecstatic...so what happened after that?

The talking heads all told people that Bush had won, so he did, retrospectively. ISTR some pretty clear polling showing that immediately after the debates, people thought Kerry won, but after a little media exposure it went the other way.

Debate performance doesn't matter nearly as much as what the talking heads say about debate performance. And, really, that goes for almost everything else in political campaigns these days: the real major battleground is among political pundits on TV who shape perception which creates political reality.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 23, 2008 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

I would guess (though I obviously have no way of knowing) that many of the people who watched Obama on Youtube are already supporters. The debates reach a much larger and more varied audience, so it's really not much of a counterpoint at all.

Posted by: chili on January 23, 2008 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

econobuzz,

Yes, Obama is a good counterpuncher. Again, probably just me, the Walmart riposte struck me as more effective, in a 2008 debate, than the Clintons' "slumlord" counterattack, a term that might have worked better (had more sliming power) in the 1980s or 1990s. They keep defaulting to the 20th century and an older bloc of voters.

His spontaneous protest Bill's attack over the Reagan business: "I don't know who I'm running against" was perfect. And won the point for Obama.

Posted by: paxr55 on January 23, 2008 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK
...see that NYT article about his speechwriter...amberglow at 4:15 PM
Precisely. Obama's speech writer

...Mr. Favreau also used this time to master Mr. Obama’s voice. He took down almost everything the senator said and absorbed it. Now, he said, when he sits down to write, he just channels Mr. Obama — his ideas, his sentences, his phrases.
“The trick of speechwriting, if you will, is making the client say your brilliant words while somehow managing to make it sound as though they issued straight from their own soul,” said the writer Christopher Buckley, who was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. “Imagine putting the words ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ into the mouth of Ron Paul, and you can see the problem.”
....Not everyone is so enamored. Mr. Obama excels at inspirational speeches read from a teleprompter before television cameras, critics have noted, but many of his other speeches on the campaign trail have failed to electrify...

Posted by: Mike on January 23, 2008 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

Whereas George W. Bush was master of the format.

It's not about beating your opponent, it's about beating expectations. Put out enough "he's not a great debater, he actually answers the questions, he's too honest, we're really worried" statements, and he will be fine. All you have to beat is expectations.

In addition, none of these debates have been the typical "open for 2-3 minutes, close for 2-3 minutes." He will shine there, and it's what people often remember. They tune out after the second half, and those who stay generally only remember the closing.

Posted by: anonymous on January 23, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

I think it should be in the style of high school and college debate. With the formal style required. We'd have one issue. And each person would have to take a specific side. The same rules would apply to each debate.

But this isn't about debate, it's about creating a media show. So you have YouTube debates and all other matter of stupidity.

Same old, same old, I suppose.

Posted by: Inaudible Nonsense on January 23, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

That's exactly how I've been explaining it to people for a few weeks now. It's weird. But I can't help but wonder why he and his team can't overcome this issue--although, to be fair, I think he has been doing progressively better each time.

Although I'm not so convinced that he has to "win" the debates, particularly not according the standards of political junkies. What he does have to accomplish in a debate is, well, debatable, and probably only clear in retrospect with a race this complex.

Posted by: Adam on January 23, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

amberglow,

From what I have read, Obama's speeches are a back and forth between him and a speechwriter. He writes some, the sw writes some and on and on until they get it right. So you are wrong on that one.

And then there's Obama's first book. His own writing apparently. I'm sure you wouldn't need to read it to come up with a put down, but there is some truly great writing there.

And in any case, right after the debate the CNN pundits were giving Obama an A- and B's to the other two. Not that it matters when one of the latter lies and repeats the lies in her ads in SC. Lies, confirmed as such by the WaPo truth squad - 2 pinocchios, FYI.

Posted by: Manfred on January 23, 2008 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

I watched the TV debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980. When it was over I was very relieved. Reagan had revealed to the world beyond any question that he was a blithering idiot, an ignoramous, and an utter phony. Carter had shown himself to be intelligent, articulate, wise and deeply caring about the country. That's the end of Ronald Reagan, I thought. Carter's reelection is ensured.

The next day the pundits were extolling Reagan's debate triumph and Reagan's poll numbers were going through the roof and he went on to subject the world to eight years of catastrophe. Only the great good fortune of having Gorbachev in charge of the USSR averted global thermonuclear war.

Since then, I don't expect my judgements about how well candidates perform in the debates to have any bearing on how well they will do with the electorate.

And this has been confirmed by the Gore/Bush and Kerry/Bush debates, in which Bush, like Reagan only without the skills of a trained (albeit grade B) movie actor, revealed himself to be a blithering idiot, an ignoramous and an utter phony, not to mention a vicious and shameless liar, while both Gore and Kerry demonstrated that they were intelligent, knowledgeable, articulate and dedicated public servants. None of which helped them in the election.

So at this point if I watch the debates it is just for entertainment. And frankly, since Kucinich has been excluded, the Democratic debates are not especially entertaining. It's just Edwards reciting his stump speech, and Obama and Clinton trying to nasty each other without appearing nasty, and trying to avoid distressing any hypothetical middle-of-the-road centrist undecided voter, or ultra-rich corporate CEO, who might be watching.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 23, 2008 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

paxr55,

You're right -- BUT the Clinton strategy was precisely to draw him into counterpunching -- over things that don't really matter -- to knock him off message, to make him look less like a statesman, less like a visionary.

Wallmart, slumlords, etc. -- statesmen and visionaries don't stoop to those kinds of arguments, even if they win points. HRC wanted a mudslinging contest, so she could say afterwards, "He's frustrated" and "He showed up looking for a fight."

Their whole debate strategy was designed to belittle him, make him look as petty as she is, and thereby minimize his charisma and appeal.

And he's still off message. Still fighting with Bill.

Posted by: Econobuzz on January 23, 2008 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK
"the real major battleground is among political pundits on TV who shape perception which creates political reality."

and then there was New Hampshire... :)

Posted by: Boorring on January 23, 2008 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

Christ! Politicians are LYING about their oppoenents in their TV ads!? And more than one person (i.e. Bill AND Hillary) attacking Obama AT THE SAME TIME? The nerve! Where do these Clintons come up with these diabolically tricky new campaign techniques? I sure hope Obama continues to cry about it. Very effective for him, I'm sure. Especially with male voters.

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

The debates are certainly artificial and something that Presidents never engage in.

Unfortunately, it was debate performance that did in my candidate, Gov. Richardson. He's the most accomplished and well versed candidate, but he was atrocious in the early debates and thus written off.

Shame, shame, shame...

Posted by: Expat Teacher on January 23, 2008 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

i'd argue that the people who watch the speeches tend to be supporters. the debates is where undecideds and supporters of the other candidates actually end up listening to everybody.

Posted by: david in norcal on January 23, 2008 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

As if debate performance has ever been an accurate predictor of who wins the presidency or the nomination.

Who cares?

Posted by: lobbygow on January 23, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

Tell it to Nixon in 1960.

Posted by: Isle of Lucy on January 23, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Am I the only one who thought Obama did well in the last debate? I was expecting his typical hesitations, but he seemed crisper than I'd ever seen him. I think he's getting better. And I was whooping and hollering at him taking on the Clintons. It was about time!

Posted by: Lacey on January 23, 2008 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

Agree with Kevin here on all points. I'm an Obama supporter, but he definitely has a bit of Kerry-esque "Senator speak", as well as a little stutter, in the debates. Clinton is smart and quick and well prepared enough to have a clear answer to pretty much any question-or at least appear to have a clear answer.

I think Obama would be well served to sharpen up his debate perfomances-I think good debate performances by Bill Clinton in '92 really helped him get past any charge of inexperience, because he seemed to have thought about EVERYTHING, and could give you a 5 point plan at the drop of a hat.

I think Obama HAS given his policies a good amount of thought, and has good ideas (unlike say, Giuliani, who will confidently state that the moon is made of green cheese, and had something to do with 9/11) but he needs to do a better job selling that in debates, because if even if only a minority of viewers are undecided, those people have friends and coworkers who might be swayed by good word of mouth.


Posted by: Chris on January 23, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

... The nerve! Where do these Clintons come up with these diabolically tricky new campaign techniques? I sure hope Obama continues to cry about it. Very effective for him, I'm sure. ...

This meme keeps coming up, and I just don't get it. When a Clinton answers an attack, it's "responding"; like you're supposed to do; like Kerry didn't do enough of. When Obama answers an attack, it's "crying."

What is he supposed to do when someone "lies about him in a TV ad?" I suppose he should say, "Oh, good one! You got me there! Yuck, yuck, yuck!"

Posted by: Dagome on January 23, 2008 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

"Tell it to Nixon in 1960."

Or Stephen Douglas in 1858. And just as relevant an example.

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin has been trying to talk himself into voting for Clinton for the past few months on this blog. Pretty soon we'll know the result of his deliberations. I honestly don't know how he'll go.

Posted by: lampwick on January 23, 2008 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

A good stammer is a useful tool. It's been used sucessfully for centuries by Brit aristocrats and intellectuals. For example, it can indicate astonishment that the opponent is really that stupid, or it can counterpoint the opponent's glibness.

Posted by: Bob M on January 23, 2008 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

I thought he did well, Lacey. I wish he had come better prepared for the Reagan issue which was bound to come up. Since the debate I've discovered that positive, downright glowing remarks about Reagan from both Clintons have been made. One instance (by Bill) will be in Tom Brokaw's forthcoming book. I hope that book gets published soon!

Posted by: nepeta on January 23, 2008 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

Lacey you are not the only one who thought Obama did better in the last debate.

You are right, it is time someone took on the Clintons. I lived through the first Clinton administration. I ask that somebody tell me what they actually did to advance the interests of the American middle class. NAFTA? No! Health care? No! Welfare reform? No! Anything?

Bill beat the impeachment rap. They didn't go to jail. Did they accomplish anything else? Anything at all?

This thread is part of the "Obama is not experienced enough to be President" frame the Clintons have been selling to everybody including Kevin Drumn.

Posted by: corpus juris on January 23, 2008 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

This meme keeps coming up, and I just don't get it. When a Clinton answers an attack, it's "responding"; like you're supposed to do; like Kerry didn't do enough of. When Obama answers an attack, it's "crying."


Well, I think that's exactly the point. It is a meme. A lot of people DO interpret it as him crying. I think it's a clever dynamic that the HRC people understand and have manuevered him into. He's running against a woman, and when he responds to things like the Bill attacks, and the whole MLK thing the way he has, he looks like a crybaby and she looks tough. It's a win for her and a loss for him, not even getting to the good point others have raised here about him being on the defensive and thus not able to push his message when he's doing this. He should stop.

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

Get Clinton and Obama their own personal blogs! And have them go at it the way real men (and women) do - with clever slurs! And misunderstood sarcasm! And exclamation points! And FULL CAPS! And BROKEN LINKS! And EMOTICONS!!!!! ;b

Posted by: lampwick on January 23, 2008 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

The people who feel like "it's time someone took on the Clintons" (as a few people here have posted) obviously aren't voting for Hillary anyway. IN other words, Obama isn't adding any votes with all that.

Posted by: Pat on January 23, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

I think people said the same thing about our current president. When scripted, he does the inspiring thing well (at least well enough to fool enough people into voting for him). In small groups, he's likable and at ease (so long as the German Chancellor isn't around). In debates he's lousy, but his handlers do a good job at lowering expectations, so it didn't hurt him.

Clearly, it takes more than good speechifying and good personal interactions to make a president.

Posted by: stand on January 23, 2008 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

I did some googling. Here are past laudatory comments by both Hillary and Bill regarding Reagan. Keep in mind while reading these that Obama did not go nearly so far and instead was commenting on Republican dominance for the last 25 years, even during the Clinton administration.

National Journal

Posted by: nepeta on January 23, 2008 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

Mike (4:02 PM):

The fact that you are still desperately trying to spin that is telling, even more telling that Obama's professed admiration

Since I am not an Obama shill, could you please give me the quote where Obama professed admiration for Reagan’s policies or policy outcomes?

I think she did him a favor: she could have come back by mentioning his high school peccadilloes.

You are stoned, right? How could Hillary, with any personal dignity intact, suggest that the “peccadilloes” of a teenager disqualify one for the office of President. You are talking about 1) Bill Clinton’s wife, 2) The woman who’s, at this point in time, only
serious claim to electoral fame is her ex-pres dog of a hubby, right?

Put down that crack pipe, dude.

Posted by: Keith G on January 23, 2008 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

I think Obama is running into several newbie problems. The stutter, the quick accusations of Swiftboating (if it's not a concocted straight out lie, it's not swiftboating, it's actually just politics as usual), the great speeches with little substance. He doesn't seem quite prepared for the game. But the Clintons, if Obama does win the nomination, will have given him some valuable experience before the Republicans descend upon him.

Posted by: mlynn on January 23, 2008 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin G - I think being a senator from the great state of New York is a pretty serious claim to fame. If that's not important enough, then I'd hate to hear your critique of Obama's background.

Posted by: jen on January 23, 2008 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

Bush came off like a retard every time he engaged in a debate and yet he won an election. Maybe there's hope for Obama yet who, while not a stellar debater, is certainly parsecs more advanced in that area than GWB (who was/is still struggling with that whole subject-verb-predicate construct).

Posted by: Everet on January 23, 2008 at 6:06 PM | PERMALINK

"manage to avoid developing debate skills? Lawyers are supposed to be nimble of mind, quick on their feet, articulate and able to spar with an intellectual adversary their equal or even their superior. It is suspect he does as poorly as he does in the debate format. Can you graduate Columbia and Harvard in the fields of study he pursued and not be required to take debate? A puzzle for sure"

C'mon now, lawyers are given longer than 30 seconds to 2 minutes to make their points. They ask the questions and are rarely asked to give a substantial answer on the spot. I'm sure the Univ. of Chicago didn't hire the guy if he didn't know his stuff.

That being said, I've noticed Obama does seem to take time to think about the answer and stutters a little as he does it. I want him to get the nomination so I choose to think he's trying to give an honest and forthright answer on complicated subjects. It could be he's trying to frame it in a politically favorable way, who's to know really. It is something he should work on. His answers, without the pauses, would be much more effective...he did have a couple good zingers though :)

Posted by: drosz on January 23, 2008 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

Debates and Q&A reflect a deeper understanding of the issues than a speech that is written by a team of speechwriters and researchers. I'm not surprised that Obama does much worse in debates than speeches. To be sure, Obama is good at listening and developing ideas based on what he heard but there is absolutely nothing he has done that gives me confidence that he cares to delve as deeply into the issues as Hillary or Bill Clinton.

Obama held a total of ZERO committee hearings for the subcommittee that he chairs. Per Steve Clemons, Hillary is often the only Senator attending hearings for committees she sits on. Obama may have a lot of god-like virtues to many, but you have to face it, he is no Hillary Clinton when it comes to doing the policy wonk hard work.

I suppose if you are a god like Obama, it doesn't matter that you put the work into learning the minutia of the policy details.

Posted by: gq on January 23, 2008 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

"I think Obama is running into several newbie problems. The stutter, the quick accusations of Swiftboating (if it's not a concocted straight out lie, it's not swiftboating, it's actually just politics as usual), the great speeches with little substance. He doesn't seem quite prepared for the game. But the Clintons, if Obama does win the nomination, will have given him some valuable experience before the Republicans descend upon him."

That's what i think, and i see it more and more with each new encounter and primary/caucus cycle. I really think he needs more seasoning--or he really believes that he alone could play the game differently from other candidates, other parties, and the media? (which would be hopelessly naive and simply reinforce that he's not ready too.)

Posted by: amberglow on January 23, 2008 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

As I said, Obama is a fine debater. Too discursive for some. All right. Appreciated the observation upthread that hesitation and pauses can be used to advantage in verbal exchanges. Barack's timbre is very pleasing too.

Kevin's question? I now see it as overwrought.

As for the Clinton attacks and Obama's reactions, I too like to see B.O. respond to them and see the attacks overall as a good sign for him. They spring from fear on the part of the Clintons that they're gonna lose the nomination.

As an aside, regarding actual debating ability, were Obama, Hillary, John Edwards, and their spouses for that matter (all lawyers) involved in moot court competitions during law school?

How did they do?

Posted by: paxr55 on January 23, 2008 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

The impact of debates is greatly exaggerated. John Kerry beat George W. Bush in all 3 debates last year, but it made no difference in the polls.

Posted by: CA Pol Junkie on January 23, 2008 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

I would ask if debates even matter in this day and age. Clinton has been the best performer by far, but it hasn't really helped her all that much.

And John Kerry KOed at least two, maybe all three, of the presidential debates with Bush. Fat lot of good that did him.

Maybe they mattered in the Kennedy-Nixon days, but in the age of hyper-targeted mailings, Youtube, and cable, I'm not sure if the debates matter so much.

Posted by: AMP on January 23, 2008 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

jen, and just how did HRC come to have a porfolio worthy of being a senator from the great state of New York? Since it wasn't her long-term association with that state, can you tell me what exactly made so many New Yorkers vote for her?

Posted by: Keith G on January 23, 2008 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

The ability to make a good prepared speech may be primarily a marker of acting ability.

The ability to perform well in a small group may be primarily a marker for a pleasing and winsome personality.

The ability to be a good debater may be primarily a marker of intelligence and analytical skills.

I suggest there is as much or more need in a president for the latter ability as there is for the former.

Posted by: wstander on January 23, 2008 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

It's been viewed at least 432,074 times and counting now...

Posted by: Bend on January 23, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

It is really weird watching the Obama and Clinton partisans attack each other on this site. Obama and Clinton are just not all that different from each other in terms of the policies they propose. What's the big deal?

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 23, 2008 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

SecularAnimist at 5:08 PM nails it. Reagan and Bush Jr. sounded like the idiots they were/are in the debates, and yet they won.

Whoever the Democratic nominee is -- remember: Whatever fucking stupid thing McRomnabee says, do not sigh.

Having said that, I think I'd rather have a beer with SecularAnimist than with egbert. Or maybe a bong with Norman...

Posted by: thersites on January 23, 2008 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

It would be interesting to know how George Washington would have done in one of these debates. Or Jefferson, or Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or JFK. Or Churchill, or Napoleon, or Pericles.

Debating is a specific skill, and there is no reason to believe that this skill has much to do with the ability to inspire or to lead. Many great leaders in history are remembered for their speeches. Debating should be seen as an opportunity to hear a candidate's views, not to evaluate his or her lawyering skills.

Posted by: JS on January 23, 2008 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

What's the big deal?

First of all, arguing is fun. Second, on slow news days, it's entertaining to see what microbacterial proto-themes can grow in political petri dishes.

This petri-thread is fascinating. Obama, apparently, is stupid.

Who knew!

Posted by: paxr55 on January 23, 2008 at 6:57 PM | PERMALINK

Sec Am:

Obama and Clinton are just not all that different from each other in terms of the policies they propose.

That may be part of the problem. If indeed their policies are rather similar - what else is there to do, but engage in discusson of non-policy issues. Too bad.

For the record: those policy differences that do exsist would encline me to be very supportive of Hillary - if only she and the big dawg would just stop lying. I demand better (Hillary, please stop acting as if Rove is your campaign manager. It is creeping me out).

If Barak were to start attacking HRC by lying about her, I would slap him around every chance I could.

Posted by: Keith G on January 23, 2008 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

If Barack Obama wants to give a speech before a national audience, he can have as much time as he wants supporting Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold in their filibuster of telecom immunity in the FISA bill.

Posted by: Loanword on January 23, 2008 at 7:00 PM | PERMALINK

Heh, you know whats funny -- so many (D)'s have said what Bill Clinton is doing is wrong, and the Hillary supporters just continue marching on and labeling Obama a cry-baby. Many who haven't endorsed either candidate. Its clear Clinton supports rovian tactics, and implicitly, so does Kevin Drum.

Posted by: Jor on January 23, 2008 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, Obama is stupid according to this thread. He is merely a mouthpiece for someone else's ideas, writings and speeches. And his winsome personality convinces small groups to agree with him; that by channeling this someone else. This much is easily deduced from his debate performances.

Whoever this someone else is, I sure wish they would run for office.

Posted by: Manfred on January 23, 2008 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

That's the best laugh I've had all day, Manfred. Thanks.

Posted by: paxr55 on January 23, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

jesus, jor, if you spent half the time convincing your dumber than rocks girlfriend not to vote for mccain as you do sprinkling deep "concerns" about clinton here, you might actually have some effect on some voter's decision.

Posted by: as it unfolds on January 23, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

I guess I am the only one who feels this way. Obama writes beautifully. His words cry out for a speaker equal to the task of reading them. But when he speaks those words I feel like I am listening to someone reading a term paper.

Posted by: paulo on January 23, 2008 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

He's simply not disguising his thought process while he speaks. It's a little off-putting at first because it's different from the usual, but the style grows on you.

Posted by: Boronx on January 23, 2008 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

A good stammer is a useful tool. It's been used sucessfully for centuries by Brit aristocrats and intellectuals.

My reaction too. But then I note that neither Bob M. nor I are Americans...

I don't find the stammer annoying at all. If anything,it shows you are engaging with what the other person is saying and not just reaching for preformulated speaking points. But that could have something to do with the fact that I stammer too.

Posted by: snicker-snack on January 23, 2008 at 8:37 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's book _Memories of my Father_, is beautifully written and thought through. (I'm an English professor.) What impresses me about him is that I suspect he writes a lot of his own speeches, or certainly has good input on them.

Debating is another medium entirely. I rather enjoy his relaxed manner, but it's hard to get used to, after hearing the speeches.

Posted by: Susan on January 23, 2008 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK
I watched the TV debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980. When it was over I was very relieved. Reagan had revealed to the world beyond any question that he was a blithering idiot, an ignoramous, and an utter phony.

Yep, you're right about that. And Carter didn't even sigh out loud.

Posted by: little ole jim on January 23, 2008 at 9:48 PM | PERMALINK

A good actor can give a great moving speech too. Maybe we should elect an actor.

Posted by: CyclingLeft on January 23, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Long public speeches are prepared ahead of time and during the delivery you don't have to be creative and listen to another person.

Obama's background is academic: as student and teacher. He gives speeches the way you'd lecture. He debates like a teacher who isn't used to being questioned by anyone.

Edwards was a trial lawyer and I think that hinders him in a three-way debate. He's more used to delivering an argument and rebutting the opponent's points. He isn't so used to asking questions or interrupting or questioning someone else's (perhaps bogus) statements.

Hillary debates more naturally as a candidate. I think she didn't have a background which hamstrung her and she's just developed into what she does now.

Edwards is quick, but tries to stick to his prepared statements. That is good sometimes, but also makes him look canned at times.

Obama is slow and either thoughtful or just bad at debating (and one would presume discussion).

Hillary is very self-controlled and usually lacking in spontaneity which makes her look robotic or momentarily emotional and out of control.

None are perfect. I'd rather see the 'conversation' mode debate again.

What I ant to see is how well one convinces another of some point or dissuades another of some erroneous point. After all, a lot of politics isn't speechifying, it's persuading and arm-twisting.

Posted by: MarkH on January 23, 2008 at 10:34 PM | PERMALINK

Just as the ability to give a great speech is not necessarily diagnostic of other abilities useful in a president, the ability to excel in the debate format isn't either.

One thing I saw in Clinton in the last debate is an inability to listen to an opinion she disagreed with. During the big dustup at the beginning of the debate, while she was hitting Obama over his alleged fondness for Republican ideas, Obama waited, signaling to Wolf that he was going to want to respond. He got about 2 sentences out before Clinton tried to talk over him and interrupt.

One of the (many) things I detest about Bush is his absolute, unfounded certainty in himself-he is the decider, he has nothing to learn from anyone else. I detect some of that in Hilary-she's got everything figured out, so don't bother arguing.

Posted by: Chris on January 23, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK
.... Its clear Clinton supports rovian tactics....Jor at 7:01 PM, Keith G on at 6:59 PM, others
It's clear you have no idea what rovian tactics are

I'm tired of elections in which Democrats are incapable of fighting back. All the nice guys that Democrats nominate get to watch Republicans taking the oath of office. Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Gore, Kerry all would have been far better presidents than the Republicans who beat. All those Republicans won using Atwater&Rove tactics while our American media happily joined in by sliming of their integrity and character. Face it, nice guys finish second. That Clinton is a fighter is a good thing. When I see her debate glare, I'm reminded of a Wodehouse character whose 'look could open a clam at ten paces." What we need are fighters, fighters who will be just as tough as the Republican opposition they will face.

You Obama shills can whine that the election fray is messy, but if one isn't tough enough to fight back against attacks, and Obama has launched plenty of attacks , one doesn't deserve the prize.

Posted by: Mike on January 23, 2008 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

I would also point out that debate formats are very similar to press conferences, and I don't want to spend another 4 years with someone who can't think on their feet well.

Posted by: Mysticdog on January 23, 2008 at 11:53 PM | PERMALINK

Mike,

Fine. Nice guys finish second and you're tired and all of losing elections. And Hillary Clinton will win because she can fight. Fine. Understand that's your argument.

But hold it a second, with the shill business.

How can you charge that (1) pro-Obama commenters here are shills (a nasty charge), while (2) decrying Obama attacks on Hillary Clinton that you contend he can't really be making because he's a "nice guy," and then (3) substantiate your assertion ("Obama Attacks!") with a link to something called hillaryhub.com?

Posted by: paxr55 on January 24, 2008 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not really going anywhere with this. Just observing that Obama appears to be very good at the things that help a president and not so good at the ones that don't matter. But it's only the latter that we see. That's kind of a drag, isn't it?

Yes, we should have less debate and more written disclosure of policy; but let's face it, like TV, universal suffrage means an ever greater movement toward the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: Luther on January 24, 2008 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

I think Obama could be coached up in the debates but it is never going to be his strength. Appearing on stage with geezer McCain works in his favor but I worry about him versus Romney.

Obama never set foot in a courtroom. He worked on briefs behind the scenes and then became a lecturer.

From the recent article on Obama's speechwriters, he seems to have very little input on the day to day speeches. This is fairly typical for both candidates and presidents.

Kerry actually closed the deficit with Bush by five points to -2 after the first debate. After the third debate however the spread was back to eight.

Debates are not that important but winning the media analysis certainly is.
From US News 10/10/04
"Bush not only lost the first debate in Coral Gables but, more disastrously, lost the press analysis afterward. This time, praising Bush's performance was more important than actually witnessing his performance."

Posted by: static on January 24, 2008 at 4:21 AM | PERMALINK

You Guys are soo lucky to have politicians that are good at public Speaking. Clinton (both), Obama.............Bush (well lets not go there!

In Australia, all the politicians are pretty terrible speakers.

Cheers

Darren Fleming
Australia's Public Speaking Coach
http://www.executivespeaking.com.au

Posted by: Australian Toastmasters Champion on January 24, 2008 at 6:27 AM | PERMALINK

I think that Obama has been strong in the past two debates. Maybe I've just gotten used to his contemplative style; he visibly thinks his way through an answer. That can appear like weakness or hesitancy. And his voice does back up. But he's very cool, and he was quite pointed in turning Hillary's attacks in SC. He didn't just argue that she wasn't telling the truth; he tied the Clintonian inability to be honest with Democrats' failure to win a working mandate any time in recent memory.

Posted by: Asp on January 24, 2008 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin is completely off base suggesting that good debating abilities aren't a necessary or desirable skill in a President. As a former high school debater (quite a mediocre one at that), I can assure you that successful debating requires a facile mind, broad intellectual skills, and an ability to express oneself persuasively without the time to develop weasel words and arguments to avoid honest engagement on thorny issues.

The ability to give a good scripted speech on the other hand is tailor-made to obfuscating the speaker's real abilities and knowledge. The current President can give a good speech but his rank ignorance was obvious for all to see in the 2000 and 2004 debates.

Someone who thrives in debates gives me a feeling of confidence that he or she will be an effective participant in the intellectual fray that must be a part of any effective administration.

Posted by: Bob C on January 24, 2008 at 6:06 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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