That debate was a yawn

A bad night for Obama is a bad night for audiences, too

Topics: Television, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, TV, 2012 Presidential Debates,

In hindsight, the first five minutes of last night’s Barack Obama–Mitt Romney debate was a microcosm of the painful 90 minutes to come: Jim Lehrer explaining that the audience had been instructed not to applaud or cheer lest the proceedings feel as if they had any life to them. Obama and Romney arriving onstage in their party-appropriate ties. Obama opening by referring to himself as “the luckiest man in the world” for being married to Michelle Obama, a line that was a lot sweeter before it had been said verbatim so many times in public. Obama promising Michelle a better anniversary next year, all but jinxing this one to be awful. Obama giving an oblique opening statement. Romney, making a good-natured joke about Obama’s anniversary, and then giving a much clearer, more compelling opening statement of his own. In five minutes, the tone of the night had been established — the rest would just be painful, painful for Obama — and painfully dull.

Because of the format of the debate and particularly Jim Lehrer’s toothless questioning — essentially asking the candidates their positions on various huge topics, and then letting himself be bullied into not interrupting or directing them in more specific directions — the exchanges were not pointed, but meandering. The debate was a 90-minute wash of words. Even paying strict attention, the thing had the feel of white noise, with Romney, much more so than Obama, occasionally breaking through and saying something that registered, like a bit of talk radio come through the static perfectly clear.

Romney effectively used specific anecdotes or a list broken out by numbers — public speaking 101— to get the audience to refocus their attention. If he was “on the attack” it was only in comparison to Obama, who didn’t manipulate his material or modulate his voice to make much of anything stand out (he got a little better as the night went on). Romney didn’t get in any good zingers — except of course at Big Bird — but he wasn’t opaque and dull every time he spoke, and he laid a good manhandling on Jim Lehrer. (In the age of viral videos, the DNC might want to rustle up a “Romney interrupts Lehrer” video ASAP. A clip of Romney bullying a helpless old man could really turn this thing around.)

Obama, on the other hand was almost a caricature of himself. Has Fred Armisen ever paused more in his impersonation of Obama? Obama was quick to smile, but his pause-filled answers came through a haze. His sentences were belabored and strangely constructed. While Romney spoke, Obama consistently looked down, as though after Al Gore’s body-language debate debacle in 2000 it’s still not 100 percent clear the candidates are always on-camera. Obama never went for the jugular, not only failing to mention the 47 percent, but going down boring policy rabbit holes. This morning he is regularly being described as “professorial,” but whatever class he was teaching was one it would have been hard not to sleep through.

A little after the mid-point, Obama began to wrap up an answer about Dodd-Frank:  “The question is, does anybody out there think the big problem we had is there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?” he asked. Rather than follow this strong rhetorical question up with a strong statement about how that’s not what Obama believes, he went with the syntactically tortured and defensive, “Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.” Obama tried to tack on a “But that’s not what I believe,” but it was already too late. Romney was interrupting him.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>