Workers construct the stage as preparations continue for the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 1, 2012. US President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney will square off on October 3 during the first of three debates. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

We’re at a funny moment in the election cycle.

In the days leading up to Wednesday night’s presidential debate, which might as well be Washington’s version of the Super Bowl pre-game show, officials and pundits on both sides are falling all over themselves to compliment the other side. Suddenly, President Obama and Mitt Romney each sounds gracious toward his opponent. Magnanimous. Humble, even.

Here’s Romney adviser Beth Myers on Obama: The president is “widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.” And Obama on the GOP nominee: “Gov. Romney, he’s a good debater. I’m just okay.”

It would be remarkable if it weren’t so transparent. Both men are engaging in that age-old ritual of expectation setting, lowering the bar for their performance so it’s that much easier to step over.

It’s a game played in presidential politics, of course, but really in any competitive field where performance is so public. Many CEOs do it seemingly every quarter when they talk to Wall Street. Football coaches do it weekly when they talk up the other team’s offense or defense. And political leaders who one week tout that “we’re going to win this thing” (even in states where they’re polling behind) suddenly sound demure and timid.

But does lowering expectations this much really help them? As the Post’s Alexandra Petri points out in a humorous piece about the lengths to which the two men are going in the current expectations game, it runs the risk of backfiring by causing voter apathy. “The trouble with this game is the same as the trouble with all the negative ads,” she writes. “The net effect is to make you expect less and less until you decide to forget it and watch ‘The X Factor’ instead.” I think we can all agree—Democrat or Republican—that when Obama says “I’m just okay” at something that involves public speaking, it’s downright laughable.

Perhaps worse is that the expectations game risks making both sides look like they see the debates as yet another spin-able moment in a campaign that is starving for some seriousness. The debates are among the few opportunities when candidates can, at any length, talk in detail about their policies and their opponent’s platforms. It is—or should be—that rare moment of gravity in a campaign otherwise obsessed with gaffes, 30-second sound bites and sideshow issues.

I’m not saying that the candidates should come out swinging, promising they’re ready to trounce the other guy in a war of words. But a simple “I am looking forward to debating my opponent on the weighty matters that face us” without all the fake flattery would show a healthy and sober respect for the process that’s too often missing. We expect a certain amount of humility in our leaders. But we also expect plenty of confidence from two men who, if elected, will face far more difficult tête-a-têtes than the one on Wednesday.

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