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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

From Binders To Body Language: Analyzing The Second Presidential Debate

  • Slideshow: See how the candidates’ body language played into the debate.

Maybe it’s a cliché to say the gloves came off in Tuesday’s presidential debate. But then again, maybe not, since the candidates sometimes looked like they were actually about to start boxing.

It was a tense and testy exchange at New York’s Hofstra University, featuring a newly energized and forceful President Barack Obama squaring off against a vigorous, stand-your-ground Mitt Romney. But the evening will also be remembered for giving the distinct impression that these candidates were liking each other less and less.

-”I thought they were going to come to blows at one point,” said Jonathan Paul, director of debate at Georgetown University.

-”It looked like they were circling a boxing ring,” said Lillian Glass, a body language coach in Los Angeles.

-”I started thinking, here comes the Secret Service,” quipped Jerry Shuster of the University of Pittsburgh.

One thing was clear: It was a distinctly different Obama than the one who gave a largely listless performance in the first debate. And there were differences, too, between Tuesday night’s Romney and the more obviously confident one from the Denver debate.

Some impressions and assessments from analysts of political communication:

The President Learned His Lesson

First, the obvious: This time around, Obama was unquestionably more forceful, aggressive and effective than before – all words that were used to describe challenger Romney in the first debate.

Want more adjectives? “He was more direct, detailed, engaged and focused,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Stylistically, there are cues that suggest leadership. Obama had them.”

For Glass, the body language coach in Los Angeles, it was a simple result of Obama having learned his lesson. “He really learned well from his mistakes,” she said.

A Freeing Format

Another reason for the president’s vastly improved performance was the format, some said. Obama appeared more comfortable with the town hall model – one that allowed him to engage with his questioners in the audience and roam around the stage, something he’s good at. The lack of a desk or podium freed him, said Shuster: “He was very smooth in his ability to move around the floor.”

As for Romney, though he gave as good as he got for much of the debate, “He seemed overanxious, ready to jump off his chair,” Shuster said. “He seemed overanxious to make an argument.”

How Aggressive Is Too Aggressive?

There’s a fine line between aggressive and rude, and it was approached at times.

“You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking,” Romney said crisply when Obama was in mid-sentence at one point, evoking some gasps in the audience.

“This was on the line – it was the president of the United States,” said veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. “I mean, WHOA. It was very forceful, on the other hand.” Levine felt the debate was a draw, between “two men, both very bright, very articulate, very earnest.”

The Libya Moment

Romney seemed to be waiting for the Libya question. And he was ready to pounce when an audience member asked about the terror attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.

Romney said it took Obama a long time to admit the episode had been a terrorist attack, but Obama said he had said so the day after in an appearance in the Rose Garden. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN agreed, saying the president had in fact done so. Obama replied, “Say that a little louder, Candy.”

Romney had a point in that while Obama did refer to terrorism the day after, some in his administration repeatedly linked it to protests over an anti-Islamic video and took almost a month to acknowledge those protests never occurred. And the administration hasn’t explained why it took so long for that correction to be made or how it came to believe that the attack evolved from an angry demonstration.

Still, the exchange about it appeared to hurt Romney going forward. “He seemed rattled after that,” said Paul, the Georgetown coach.

Jamieson agreed. “Romney had trouble getting his footing back for a while.”

Even worse for him, though, Jamieson said, will be the inevitable fallout from the exchange being played again and again on TV.

“There’s the debate, and then there’s the battle of control for the news agenda afterwards,” she said. “This is the sound bite likely to be played, and every time it is, it will disadvantage Romney.”

The Politics Of Fashion

Some would say the candidates switched roles in terms of their debate performance; what’s objectively true is that they switched tie colors, with Obama wearing red this time and Romney wearing blue. Is red warmer? Is blue cooler? Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, meanwhile, ignored both of those colors and turned heads by wearing the same shade of hot pink (likely a nod to October being breast cancer awareness month).

The Comedy Quotient (Or Is ‘Binder’ The New Big Bird?)

There were a few amusing exchanges in the earlier debates, but the extremely tense nature of this one seemed to preclude that possibility. There wasn’t really a “Big Bird” or a “malarkey” moment, and even Joe Biden would have found little to chuckle about.

But Big Bird may have ceded way in our pop-culture consciousness to a brand new expression: “Binders full of women.”

It came when Romney was answering a question about fair pay for women. While Obama mentioned the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which he signed into law, Romney spoke of his efforts to hire women into his cabinet when he was Massachusetts governor. He said he asked women’s groups to help and, he said, “They brought us whole binders full of women.”

Within moments, of course, social media pounced with multiple Twitter hashtags and a meme that featured a widely circulated image of women in a loose-leaf binder.

As for Obama, his best comedy moment may have come, fittingly for the night, in the form of a dig.

Romney asked him if he had looked at his pension lately. Obama parried: “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.”

The crowd broke the rules and laughed. Score one for the president. And look for a rematch on pensions, binders and maybe even a return of Big Bird when the two meet again next Monday. If the feisty, aggressive versions of both candidates turn up again, it’ll be fun to watch.


Other stories from Wednesday's show
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  • J Frog

    Tax cuts…random effect?  I spend more when I have more money in my pocket.

  • Maggie

    I too was a little nervous with the aggressiveness and Im always disappointed when people disrespects a President – the respect for the position should never be lost regardless of the person holding it.   Thank you H&N for one of the most balanced analysis of the debate, especially such a short analysis.

  • Don_B1

    There is a BIG, repeat BIG, difference in the TYPE of recessions experienced by Reagan in the early 1980s and that experienced by Bush/Obama.

    1) The Reagan recession was caused by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who raised the discount rate to ring out rampant inflation; when he judged that had been accomplished, he lowered the discount rate, which brought interest rates down, spurring consumer spending and business investment, a big part of which was housing growth which got the economy going in about 18 months.

    2) The Bush Greater Recession and the Obama Lesser Depression was caused when the housing/mortgage bubbles burst, leaving a large (at least 25%) of homeowner mortgages underwater, many of which were foreclosed. This led to a large retrenchment of consumer spending with businesses having to cut back on spending as their revenues took a big hit, which led to big jumps in unemployment and difficulty in paying mortgages. The solution to this “balance sheet” recession is the slow (without assistance) reduction of the massive debt on the books of individuals and businesses (the TARP helped the banks recover and balance their books, but not enough was done to help individuals), which takes a LOT longer (have you heard about the Great Depression, caused by the last big balance sheet recession, which lasted 9 years and where austerity in early 1937 extended it by a year or so?).

    The ARRA (stimulus) was a start on creating the aggregate demand (remember the U.S. economy is a consumer-driven, 70%, economy) that took a hit from reduced spending as a result of no longer being able to use house price gains for spending. But the Republicans immediately, and unfortunately, switched the conversation from jobs, which would give workers the ability to pay down that debt or save and then return to spending, to the government deficit, which helped them  prevent the necessary additional stimulus needed to complete the recovery, and guarantee Obama a second term.

    Most economists agree that passage of the American Jobs Act a year ago September, would have reduced unemployment by at least 1% by now.

    Remember, it was the massive SPENDING to prepare for a possible/likely war that ended the Great Depression. It is important to recognize that it was the JUSTIFICATION for the spending, not the actual war, that ended the Great Depression.

    • Lizzbird1

       I fear that  Gov. Romney would use that justification to get us into another (perhaps 3rd world) war.  His diplomacy skills are little to none, as seen in his European jaunt and other gaffes, and since he is a man who has always had his own way by fortune of birth, he may choose to use big boots and a big stick with China, the Middle East, and other areas of the world.  His main focus is making money, and the prospect of a war would be helpful.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Is the suggestion that married women don’t care about contraception and equal pay?? 

  • Kathy Peter

    Asked about what he would do about pay inequality for women, Governor Romney admitted that he didn’t know a single women qualified for his Massachusetts cabinet.  Wisely he asked for suggestions, but he appears to be still amazed that there were “binders of women” qualified to lead.  Yes, this is affirmative action, but does he really value education and careers for women?  Does he appreciate the barriers women still face in the workplace?  What does he advise to women laid off by state and local governments?

  • TCS_VT

    It is a bit frustrating that women are being talked about as if they respond to body language alone. I thought that Obama displayed a fabulous balance of confronting Romney’s attempts at dominance, which were overwhelming at the previous debate, while also respecting Candy and the audience. Romney does come across as a bit of a bully to me and Obama’s response was balanced and necessary. To speak from the place of instinct, I would think women would like what Obama did as he has the guts to defend himself and our country when confronted by someone trying to be bigger and stronger. I think it reflects what he shared about his foreign policy. If someone pushes us he will not let them get away with it. At the same time he is not trying to start fights.

  • Lizzbird1

    A few weeks ago, on KNPR’s  ‘State of Nevada’, one  of the guests was a member of the MA state govt. who had worked with Gov. Romney’s administration.  He said that the Gov. had left office with a very large debt, had left  education in 48th or 49th in the nation, and as a sidenote, had closed the elevator access to his office.  The Gov. keeps saying that he left MA in great condition economically, and that education was first in the nation.  The gentleman also said that R.’s work with the Olympics is much exaggerated.  Could you clarify this.  (Sorry, I forget the politician’s name.  It probably can be found in the archives.)   Thank-you.

  • Robin Update


    In our piece I quoted Mark Shields on PBS who said that Mitt Romney’s order that his people look for women to fill jobs was “affirmative action”.  Judging by the emails and comments,
    some of you thought I meant that comment as a compliment to Romney. While some may interpret it that way,  Shields meant it as irony, since Republicans are largely against affirmative action, or the hiring of someone because of their race or gender.

    Also, here in Boston, Romney’s former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey was just on local radio explaining that she was part of a women’s organization that challenged both then candidate Romney and his opponent, Shannon O’Brien, to sign a pledge that they would have a certain percentage of women in their administrations if they won. 

    Both signed. 
    Romney was following through on that pledge when he sent out the search that resulted in binders filled with women.

    Just a quick update!


    • lsgildart

      Except that he didn’t send out the search.  GAP took the initiative and brought the binders full of women to him.  Typical of Romney (I saved the Auto Industry) to try to claim credit for someone else’s work.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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