Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
You can almost hear his advisers during the preparation: “Whatever you do, Mr. President, don’t be too aggressive. Don’t come down from your post and stoop to attacking Gov. Romney. That’s not what presidents do. They rise above the fray and look like leaders, dignified and serene.”
But what seems like it will look presidential in the debate-prep room and what comes across as presidential on TV are not the same thing. On the left side of viewers’ split screen, there was Mitt Romney, staring at the president—unblinking, engaged. On the right side was Obama, glancing down at his notes, rarely even looking at his opponent.
The contrast wasn’t just in the president’s demeanor: Obama played defense nearly the entire debate, rarely attacking the GOP nominee, holding back when Romney said something misleading, even nodding and saying “right” after Romney accused him of acting too late on the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. And not once, inexplicably, did the president sound off on themes that have become common on the campaign trail: Romney’s years at Bain Capital, his tax returns, his comments about the so-called 47 percent.
The problem with this advice, if indeed it’s what Obama was told, is that what works when you’re the only man on the stage doesn’t necessarily help when the guy across from you is being an assertive alpha male. What comes off as presidential reserve in a televised news conference in the East Wing or a convention speech in a large arena can look like a guy on the ropes in the debate hall’s boxing ring. Maryland Governor and Obama surrogate Martin O’Malley may have said Obama didn’t bring up the 47 percent because “he’s a gentleman.” But when the guy at the other podium isn’t worrying too much about courtesy, no one really cares.
Voters want to see presidents appear diplomatic, statesmanlike and dignified, but they also want to see emotion, passion and fight in the person who will be their commander-in-chief. Looking presidential should no longer be an incumbent’s chief concern. They should keep it in mind, but not let it affect the performance. Instead, his priority should be explaining the value of his experience, the problems with his opponent and his vision for the future of the country.
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