Debate 'Cold' Reaction: Yes, Romney Can Debate

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I argued in my Atlantic story last month that Mitt Romney was better at debating than he was at any other aspect of campaigning, and that Barack Obama, famed and redoubtable orator, was worse.

Anyone feel like disagreeing with that, after the past 90 minutes?

I am not talking about whether I agree with the two candidates' positions. Obviously I agree more with Obama, and I believe that more of his facts and assertions are "true." I am talking about crispness in presenting positions within the constraints of this particular format, and the air of overall ease in the encounter.

If you had the sound turned off, Romney looked calm and affable through more of the debate than Obama did, and the incumbent president more often looked peeved. Romney's default expression, whether genuine or forced, was a kind of smile; Obama's, a kind of scowl. I can understand why Obama would feel exasperated by these claims and arguments. Every president is exasperated by what he considers facile claims about what he knows to be impossibly knotty problems. But he let it show.

It's a good thing for Barack Obama that there are a couple more debates ahead.

Maybe in prep sessions for the next ones they'll give him a comeback to Mitt Romney's multiply repeated "cut $716 billion from Medicare" line, which is that the Ryan/Romney plan CUTS THOSE $716 BILLION AND MORE. (Why, exactly, did we not hear that from Obama each time Romney used the number?)

It's also good for Obama that "normal" people were probably tuning out halfway through.

In my article I also argued that challengers predictably "exceeded expectations" and seemed to score points in their initial debate with an incumbent president. Moreover, they were elevated simply by being matched on equal footing with the president. Anyone want to disagree with that?

Find some GIFs of the debate -- as I am sure The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve will do -- and test  them against this account from my article about the primaries:

Civics teachers won't want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge "victory" in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates' ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked pole­axed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Ging­rich looked overexcited--and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up--the winner, the obvious candidate--with or without sound.

Again, I don't think this first debate is likely to change a huge number of votes. But from my own parochial perspective, I do feel better about my assessment. And I know what the next stage in campaign narrative -- "Romney comeback!" -- is going to be. Perhaps also this will give more leverage to Obama associates to sit him down and say: Look, you can be beat.

I've written this without seeing anyone else's liveblog, or Twitter feed, or TV commentary. Now I'll check the Internet and see what I've gotten wrong.

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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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