Reaction to Presidential Debate, Oct. 7, 2008
Communication is not easy, and that will never change. Humans are "political animals," as Aristotle said, and if one combines politics and a failure to communicate effectively, there's no costume or camouflage that can cover the weakness.
One basic tenet of communication is the rule, "show, don't tell." Last night, John McCain told how he had many things -- leadership, an economic plan, a health plan, courage -- and didn't show he had these things. What he showed were other things: desperation, furtiveness, consternation, an attacking mentality, and an inability to connect with average Americans. His body language and where he put his eyes said, "I'm not comfortable; this is not my element."
Obama's communication and comfort level contrasted with this. Like Joe Biden in the VP debate, he answered questions with too many concrete examples, he may have seemed even too reassured, and made sure to address his town hall questioner, even if he was itching to counter a misleading claim by McCain.
The epitome of the night was when McCain was talking about foreign policy, and he referenced Teddy Roosevelt's dictum "speak softly and carry a big stick." The saying is fine, but McCain turned the saying into an emotional attack on Obama, saying "Senator Obama talks big, but...." (paraphrase). In response, Obama calmly responded and elucidated the policy question at hand.
Another memorable moment for me was to see McCain squirm in trying to contrast himself with Obama's long-held positions on Pakistani sovereignty and how to get out of Iraq, both of which have now become the consensus, while Obama was shouted down months ago when he came out with the ideas. "Surge! Courage. Leadership," McCain seemed to say in staccato form, just not seeming authoritative.
"Obama is just more presidential," my wife Jess said, and I had to agree. But not only that, Obama has so much confidence: consider when Obama noted that McCain had said "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!" and McCain looked guiltily at the floor. Who was the boss at that moment? Again, Obama showed us what we needed to hear; McCain tried to tell us what we wanted to hear.
There are too many bitter pills out there these days: the economy, energy, Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, and the bailout, among others. Which candidate was prepared to admit the problem, figure out the cause, and find a solution? I have no idea why the GOP strategists told both McCain and Palin to say, "We have an all-of-the-above approach." That sounds like unrealistic pandering.
On the same question, Obama won the segment by simply saying, "Yes, we have to make tough decisions on priorities." That's just more realistic and reassuring.
Overall, Obama channeled Bill Clinton with his communication style last night -- like Clinton, he even remembered the questioners' names, which McCain forgot at one moment (showing his age). McCain channeled the blustery "confidence" of George W. Bush, which anyone can tell is just a mask over a deep sense of insecurity. Would you rather vote for a candidate with the confidence to lose, or one willing to make gamble after gamble just to win? I come away from this town hall debate thoroughly impressed with Barack Obama.