In his article entitled “Battle Plans: How Obama Won,” the New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza records the following exchange between Obama and a staffer over Obama’s strong performance in his first debate with John McCain:
After Obama’s first debate with McCain, on September 26th, Gaspard sent him an e-mail. “You are more clutch than Michael Jordan,” he wrote. Obama replied, “Just give me the ball.”
Obama showed up for the Hofstra University debate and played an outstanding game, strongly aggressive from the outset, coolly scoring points when it was his turn, and unruffled by barging ‘in-your-face’ tactics by his opponent. The debate was the most intense debate I’ve ever seen in a US Presidential election, and as a political junkie I’ve been watching them since I first landed on these shores in the time of Reagan. I’ve learnt over the years that who I’ve held as the winner is not whom the press and conventional wisdom deems the winner. Mondale was more coherent than Reagan, Dukakis more persuasive than Bush senior, Clinton better than Bush senior, Gore stronger than Bush junior and Kerry clearly superior to Bush’s performances in 2004. But the GOP politico professionals were very skilled at leveraging emotional impressions, unconscious observations, and extra-discursive mannerisms, to turn substantive defeat into affective victory. In the downscaled world where they wanted to play the “guy you’d like to have a beer with” should be president (in Bush junior’s case, hopefully drinking non-alcoholic beer).
So, after a candidate that was a recovering alcoholic, the GOP now has one that doesn’t drink! In affect world, this creates ‘likeability’ problems. So an alternative strategy is to sell the candidate as a take charge ‘job creator’ who understands your problems and will aggressively move to fix them (on ‘day one’). Instead of an equal to watch football with, you get a superior, a patriarchal leader, a tad pushy and aggressive.
The GOP’s skill at affective spin was evident after the first debate, which provided lots of rich material. Obama was strong on substance and policy but lost on all affective criteria. So he needed to come back strong. And, since sports is more than a framing metaphor here but the experiential field for Obama (famously still playing competitive basketball at 51) and template for understanding for many of the viewing audience, it was ‘game on’ in Hofstra, and game metaphors de rigueur thereafter in the commentary.
Romney did well but Obama was better than him, the issue of Benghazi being a particularly powerful response.
For all its fascinating dimensions, this debate did have a gendered dimension that I think might grow in time. It was alpha male combat, an aggressive game played by both at a high intensity. While many may have found it compelling I expect some found the spectacle a bit ugly and repulsive. Not everyone likes competitive sports, and not everyone finds it enlightening to have two presidential figures debate like they did in New York. The degree to which that alternative affective reaction exists, a dis-identification that imagines alternative form of political debate, could condition whether we will see a woman president in the future. I hope it does.