Rhetorical Questions

Who will win the presidential debates? What does each candidate’s use of words say about how he would govern as president? Can Obama’s rhetorical skills lift him to the heights of Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan—or will his speechmaking do him in? After watching all 47 (!) of the primary season’s debates, our correspondent has the answers—and some harsh criticism for the moderators.
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“But … I’ll try to go on!”—this in perfect, mock-melodramatic tone that again won a big appreciative response from the crowd. She turned to Obama and, while she didn’t quite pat him on the leg, gave a comparable, admiring “what a guy!” expression while saying: “He’s very likable! I agree with that.” A pause, and a little smile. “I don’t think I’m that bad.” It couldn’t have been done better. To me, it was more “humanizing” than her teary-eyed moment at a campaign stop 36hours later, because there was a playful element along with the hurt.

Obama looked flustered and blurted out his second-most-important line of the debates (we’ll get to the most important soon): “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” “Thank you so much!” she said, less in irritation than surprise, and after nervous laughter in the room she swung into the “real question,” which of course concerned “who is ready to be president on Day One.”

The problem for Clinton is that while she was nearly always at the top of her game, the game she was playing changed debate by debate. In one encounter, she hailed Obama as a comrade in their joint struggle against the Bush administration and the media. In the next, she regretfully but relentlessly pointed out the ways in which he wasn’t prepared to lead. At one of the last debates, in Cleveland, Brian Williams began the program by showing back-to-back tapes of her saying “I am honored to be here” with Obama and “Shame on you, Barack Obama.” She neatly reconciled the differences in two sentences: “Well, this is a contested campaign. And as I have said many times, I have a great deal of respect for Senator Obama, but we have differences.” But there was no way to talk around the jarring inconsistency of her two statements, especially the emotional contrast as it came through on the clips. In making different cases against Obama, she reinforced the strongest argument against herself: that she would say whatever she thought might work at the moment. Obama, with a few leaden exceptions in which he made a point of criticizing Clinton in a debate, seemed like the same character from one session to the next.

Al Gore's debate performance is mocked on Saturday Night Live

Hillary Clinton’s level of skill remained consistent; the ends toward which she used it varied. We have seen this pattern before, with Al Gore’s performances in his three debates against George W. Bush in 2000. In the first he was hyper-aggressive, with the instantly famous sighs that signaled his displeasure. In the second, after being mocked on Saturday Night Live for the first performance, he seemed almost sedated. By the third, he was Just Right, but the damage had been done. Bush was mediocre in all three, but consistent. By scoring logical points but confusing his identity, Gore hurt himself with the “jury.” So did Hillary Clinton.

Barack Obama’s evolution through the debates was just the opposite of Clinton’s. To an amazing degree, his message never changed; it matured. Knowing where Obama ended up by the late debates and primaries, it is easy to see what he was trying to say early on. In his often fuzzy answers in the early debates, sometimes so long in the buildup that he didn’t get to the main point before his time was cut off, Obama tried to do two things. He grappled with the question at hand—paying for his health-care proposals, dealing with Pakistan—while also moving to the “real question” about the need for a “new kind” of politics. The pairing of those answers was second nature by the last debates but not in the early rounds. In these he wasted time on hedges and footnotes, and did not manage to make his slight pause before answering seem like a sign of reflection, as it came to later on.

In response to a question about being "black enough," Obama jokes about catching a cab in Manhattan

Obama had noticeable spikes in his skill level. Ups: his most important line of the debates, which came in the last session before the Iowa caucuses. Carolyn Washburn, of The Des Moines Register, listed the former Clinton administration staffers advising him and asked how his foreign policy would be a “break from the past.” Hillary Clinton laughed in an unattractive way and said, in a comment not included in the transcript, “I want to hear that!” Obama’s answer is included: “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.” But the transcript doesn’t convey the gleam that immediately came into his eye as he conceived the reply, or the easy, just faintly aggressive smile with which he delivered it. This looked to me like the moment when he took command. There were more of these moments than most press coverage conveyed. One more illustration: in the YouTube debate, Anderson Cooper showed a video question asking Obama if he was “black enough.” He took a moment to grin, and said, “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan …” and, after the resulting cheers and laughter died down, set into “Let me go to the broader issue,” which was that “race permeates our society.”

And his downs? Whenever he talked about certain topics, including China, it seemed to me that he was reading from cue cards (“manipulating their currency,” etc.) rather than expressing policies he had thought through. The policies he has made his own—on race, Iraq, constitutional issues, family values—are subtly or dramatically different from the Democratic orthodoxy. Like most people, where he is less certain, he is more orthodox, as he showed after clinching the nomination with an unsubtly “pro-Israel” speech at the AIPAC convention in Washington.

Obama also showed a different sort of weakness in the debates, one that may be more significant during the general-election campaign and in his presidency if he wins. I noticed it more clearly after watching his three debates against Alan Keyes four years ago.

Keyes never had a chance in that election—he was a sacrificial fill-in for a Republican nominee who dropped out at the last minute during a divorce scandal—but he can hold his own in any debate with anyone. He was a successful schoolboy orator and debater who has all the skills of repartee Obama seemed to lack during the primary debates: he answers immediately, he talks very fast, he has a theory and an illustration to buttress every point. If we applied the conventional wisdom of this year’s debates, we would assume that he would talk his way around the more deliberate and thoughtful Obama.

But in 2004, he didn’t. Obama matched him in speed, aggressiveness, and swagger. Anyone who looks at these old debates will see it. The Obama of the presidential debates seemed to be enduring the sessions; the Obama who took on Alan Keyes seemed to be having fun. When attacking Keyes’s background and ideas, which he did frequently, he sounded wry rather than ponderous or angry. He didn’t seem to mind needling or attacking Keyes, or seem upset when Keyes attacked.

The Obama of 2004 didn’t spend much time on his now-familiar “new age of politics” theme (or need to). If asked about steel-industry jobs, tax rates, or the death penalty, he would address the specifics of those issues, without bothering to stress the need for Americans to bridge their partisan divides. Every now and then, he would make those larger points—after all, this was six weeks after his famous speech at the Democratic convention about moving past red states and blue states, to the United States of America. But they seemed incidental rather than central.

That previous Obama also sounded very little like a professor. With dismissive ease, he reeled off rebuttal points and identified errors as if he had been working in a courtroom rather than a classroom all his life. Keyes had said that Jesus Christ would not have voted for Obama. Obama was asked for his response: “Well, you know, my first reaction was, I actually wanted to find out who Mr. Keyes’s pollster was, because if I had the opportunity to talk to Jesus Christ, I’d be asking something much more important than this Senate race. I’d want to know whether I was going up, or down.”

All in all, Obama seemed in his element and having fun—two things no one has detected about his debate performances this past year. The ease with instant retorts he had shown against Keyes seemed to desert him against Edwards and Clinton, along with his unflappability under personal attack. “Senator Clinton, she doesn’t mind the direct confrontations at all,” Sidney Blumenthal said of her. Senator Obama, he definitely seemed to mind. Especially when it came to personal confrontation. In the very last debate, Obama managed to keep a neutral, thoughtful expression on his face as Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos delivered one “electability” question after another. Peggy Noonan, a political columnist who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, has referred to this as “Obama Thinking Face” and told me in an e-mail, “There is something delightful in the fact that you can see his thoughts developing as he speaks—that he’s thinking as he talks. It sounds small but most politicians seem distracted from their thoughts as they speak.” She added:

I remember always having the sense that Obama couldn’t land a punch. And then kind of respecting the fact that he wouldn’t land a punch. Hillary was flailing away like a midget boxer and he was holding her off with his long arm and then saying something boring about alternative energy sources.

Still, Obama’s most miserable scenes in any of the debates were cutaway shots when Hillary Clinton was criticizing his policies, his experience, or worst of all, his sincerity. When under personal attack herself, she usually wore a small, mocking grin or sometimes shook her head—No, no, that’s wrong. He tended to look not thoughtful but pained or stricken. Attack brought out the one great line about “looking forward to you advising me,” but many more moments of seeming to be thrown off his stride.

What had changed since 2004? Was it that Keyes, for all his virtuosity, was never a serious contender, so Obama had nothing to lose? Was it the move to the national stage? The greater range of issues outside his direct expertise? That he was now “the” black candidate in the race, with attendant dangers of seeming too aggressive or angry, which didn’t matter before, since Keyes is black too? The nature of national-level questioning, which holds so many more gotcha traps than the state debates did?

For now, we can’t be sure. But his recent show of discomfort with direct confrontation indicates a clear path for John McCain.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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