This year’s presidential debates could have as decisive an effect on the election outcome as any since 1980, if not 1960. Mitt Romney brings formidable advantages to the contests—but he has one big weakness that President Obama can exploit.

The Matchup Ahead

We now have a longer debate-performance track record for Mitt Romney than for any other figure with national ambitions. (Hillary Clinton first entered debates in her own right, rather than on her husband’s behalf, 12 years ago. Joe Biden ran for president in 1988 but then sat out national campaigns for the next 20 years.) And the meaning of that record is very clear: Romney is strong when prepared, and weak and error-prone when forced to improvise.

Some politicians have a gift for talking their way past factual details they’ve forgotten or complex policy questions they have yet to resolve. Romney does not. For instance, on June 15, a Friday, President Obama announced his executive-order version of the DREAM Act, to stop deportations of many illegal immigrants who had come to the United States as children. The next afternoon, Bob Schieffer taped a Face the Nation interview with Romney and asked four times whether Romney would repeal the order. For some reason, Romney and his advisers had not yet worked out his position on this issue. Some politicians would have been able to finesse that fact, and to do it without a second’s delay. (You see, Bob, this is an issue that I take so seriously, and that is so important to our country’s future, that I’m not going to try to deal with it in a quick sound-bite way—though your question is a very good one. A week from now, in El Paso [Dayton/Orlando], I’m going to talk about immigration, citizenship, and America’s future. No issue matters more [blah blah blah], and I am going to give it the serious treatment the American people deserve.) Other politicians would already know, from having worked through the issue over the years, what their policy would be. Romney didn’t know, and he couldn’t finesse. Four times Schieffer asked his question, and four times, clumsily, Romney declined to answer.

From nearly everyone I spoke with about Romney, which included his present supporters and those who had campaigned against him over the years, I heard variants of what I was told by Robert Reich. Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, vied for the chance to debate Romney in the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race. (Eventually, Reich came in second in the Democratic primary to Shannon O’Brien, whom Romney then beat.)

“He will have done a huge amount of homework,” Reich said of the Romney he had observed in Massachusetts and expects to see in this fall’s debates. “He will have moot debates with debating partners, as they all do. But he truly will have internalized a lot of the questions and the most-effective responses. He will have the zingers ready, and he knows the importance of those zinger lines. He will have it down—even the humor. He will know that self-deprecating humor is enormously useful, and will have rehearsed it.”

When I asked David Axelrod, who had helped prepare candidate Obama for his debates with John McCain, what differences he foresaw this time, he also stressed Romney’s systematic preparation. “As a debater, he is remarkably disciplined,” he said. “It is very unlikely that he is going to come in there without knowing much of what he is going to say, or without having practiced it relentlessly or delivered it over and over. He is very good at internalizing the one-liners and knowing when to fire. And he can run off large set pieces from memory pretty effectively.”

Stuart Stevens, who worked for George Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008, made the preparations sound more laid-back and informal: “My experience has been, these guys pretty much know what they need to get ready.” Because the “expectations game” plays so large a role in media assessment of debate performance, Axelrod naturally has an interest in talking up Romney’s skills and preparatory effort, and Stevens in talking them down. Still, no one I spoke with challenged the view that Romney well prepared is a debater who can do real damage. All his team has to do is anticipate every subject that might possibly come up.

And what of the president? His advantages are obvious. He is the president; he has been on this stage before; there is almost no question or criticism he has not heard and handled in the past four years. Moreover, the consistent evidence about Romney’s strengths and weaknesses simplifies Obama’s strategy for attack. “It is very important to unbalance Romney,” as Robert Reich put it. “When you have someone who is that scripted and wooden, you have to push him into spontaneity”—with a factual-knowledge point, a new sort of criticism, or a policy choice that somehow Romney has not yet thought through.

Obama was not always quick or good with one-liners during his 2008 primary debates. But he grew visibly more at ease as the debates went on, and he scored effectively several times when going on offense against the formidable Hillary Clinton. The clearest example came in a debate three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, when a reporter read out a list of former Clinton-­administration members who were now advising Obama. Given this lineup, how could Obama’s foreign policy be in any sense a “break from the past”? Hillary Clinton laughed when she heard the question, and said, wickedly, “I want to hear that!” Obama waited a beat, turned to her, and said with a slight smile, “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.” He occasionally used a similarly sly stiletto on questioners. In a CNN/YouTube debate in 2007, a questioner asked Obama via a YouTube video if he was “black enough.” With perfect timing, Obama waited; then gave a knowing grin; then said, “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan …”; then enjoyed the laughs and cheers; then moved into his “real” answer, about the way “race permeates our society.”

Obama is also in a better position to play defense than he was four years ago. “He didn’t know enough about policy—then,” a member of Clinton’s 2008 team told me. “He couldn’t sustain a long discussion about, say, health care the way that she could. So our strategy was to keep drilling down and get into the detailed follow-ups.” Now the situation is reversed. Obama will be the one hoping that discussions get into details, Romney the one hoping they stay on generalities.

Yet here are the forces working against Obama, which are more complex than Romney’s simple challenge to hit the books and practice, practice, practice.

• He faces the burden of disappointing reality. Four years ago, he ran on “Change you can believe in.” Now the message is unavoidably “Things could be worse.”

• He faces the consequences of the presidential bubble. No one becomes president who is in any sense “humble,” and the daily circumstances of the job separate this one person from the rest of human existence. “You are in a bubble, and you don’t know it,” the presidential scholar Samuel Popkin told me. Everyone stands when a president enters the room; the traffic is stopped wherever he goes; no one disagrees to his face except in the most careful way. “Nobody calls you on things, nobody questions your motives,” Popkin says. “When someone finally does, it is really hard for presidents to avoid showing their sense of indignation. They know they are doing the right thing for the country, and somehow these ingrates aren’t giving them credit for it.” An incumbent who reveals even a flash of the self-pity that many politicians feel is in trouble. This extends to Obama’s tendency to trace today’s difficulties back to their George W. Bush–era origins. The historians may well agree with him, but to an election-year audience, after he has spent nearly four years in the world’s most powerful job, this inevitably sounds like whining.

• He faces the temptation not to prepare. A president has every reason to postpone or avoid mock-debate sessions. The schedule is full; the necessity to play-act is demeaning; emergencies crop up. And thus a president avoids practicing skills that are indeed different from what he does day by day. “This is one of the reasons incumbent presidents tend to lose the first debate,” David Axelrod told me. “Generally, they have not had a debate for four years. You do your press conferences, but there are no time limits or rebuttals. We went through the most gifted sparring partner anyone has ever had last time, in Hillary Clinton. We don’t have that this time.” Even allowing for possible flattery of a former foe who is now an invaluable member of the Obama team, the point remains: an incumbent president is never challenged the way a mere candidate is.

• And this specific president may suffer the burden of unrealistic expectations. When matched up against Obama, Robert Reich said, Romney “is going to be debating somebody who is not nearly as good a debater as his reputation.” For all his accomplishments as an orator, Reich said, the president under real-time questioning “can seem kind of wooden”—interestingly, the same word he used about Romney—“and even at a loss for words.” Obama’s detractors call this the teleprompter phenomenon; his admirers, a professorial or writerly air. Either way, it adds drama to what is ahead. “Even if Romney is scripted and not spontaneous, he will come across as ‘on his game,’ ” Reich said. “The danger for Obama is that Romney can still look better than Obama, if Obama does not have the same degree of discipline about the debates.”

The main “known” of these debates is that they will probably matter. One major unknown is whether they will matter mainly because of a positive revelation, like Mitt Romney’s demonstrating, as Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter, that he is a comfortable figure to whom people unhappy with Barack Obama can turn. Or because of a negative one, like Richard Nixon’s sweaty discomfort in 1960, Gerald Ford’s misstatement about Poland’s freedom in 1976, or Dan Quayle’s comparing himself to John F. Kennedy in 1988.

Each candidate has strong incentives to “go negative.” The fundamental logic of Mitt Romney’s campaign is that the Obama administration has placed America on the wrong track. Probably in every debate, he will say: “The president said he would fix the economy; he didn’t; he has to go.” Barack Obama has no choice but to argue that, as bad as things might be now, under Romney and a Tea Party–powered Republican government they would be much worse.

Perhaps the candidates will find incentives to “go positive” as well. For Romney, this would mean demonstrating that independents and wavering Democrats would have little to fear with him in command. For Obama, it would mean agreeing with Romney that America has big problems, but arguing that in a comparison of visions, plans, and values, his stand up better. Positive or negative, the stakes will be high.

Presented by

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in May. 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.


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In