The Optics of Last Night's Debate

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama during their first debate. (Alex Johnson/WGBH)

Josh King, corporate communications executive, former director of production for presidential events in the Clinton White House and host of the podcast "Polioptics," picks apart the body language, stagecraft, and other subtle elements of last night's debate.


Josh King

Comments [32]

I really don't think Obama had his head down letting Romney trample over him. It seemed he was really bored with Romney's responses on top of that fact that he waiting for him to mention Big Bird so he could tear him a new one. Romney's responses were sorely empty. Why was Romney giving credit to Ahmadinejad's comments on America's problems? Snide remarks about our current military strategy? Drone strikes under Obama Administration has actually reduced civilian deaths unlike missiles under Bush. Better education for the Middle East? Please! They have better education than we ever have. Speaking of education, Romney, couldn't you have studied a few days for a two-hour speech? Romney was blatantly off topic, which indicated that those vacant expressions mean that he had only rehearsed key sentences instead of current foreign trade/conflict. His expressions matched his responses- empty. I caught Obama half way through an eye roll in the first hour. Obama looked confused, not defeated.

Oct. 23 2012 09:25 AM
Donald Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

I think that you guys are nuts!! You're actually advocating that people watch debates with the sound OFF, so that we can judge them based on style over substance? This idea could only have been hatched by media people. If people actually followed this advice, it would not bode well for our democracy.
While this may not be a bad way to view Sunday morning "round table" discussions, for debates I have a better idea: Turn the television off and listen to them on the radio. This way you can evaluate them based on substance over style - if that's not too much of an old fashioned idea.

Oct. 04 2012 01:59 PM
Astoriagrrrl from Astoria, NY

I agree with you, Brian: I called the debate performance a draw, thinking there was too much adherence to talking points and not enough of a display of a conversational style by both men. Had things been less advertorial in style, it might have allowed certain important facts to truly stand out. I was pretty surprised by the coverage this morning and the blasting that moderator Jim Lehrer took. I feel as if, reading the coverage, I witnessed an entirely different debate.

Oct. 04 2012 01:32 PM
Laura from 14th Street from 14th Street Manhattan

I really like Obama as our president and hope that he wins. I don't understand why he let Romney run all over him. Perhaps he just doesn't want to be president any longer. Who could blame him? You only have 1 life and his is pretty great outside the office. He has had to put up with so much as the 1st black president. Maybe he just wants out.

Oct. 04 2012 12:45 PM

I found Romney's expression to be very disturbing. It looked as if he were making an effort to smile with his mouth, but his eyes were in no way smiling. The fact that he maintained this exact expression through almost the entire debate suggests that he was instructed to smile and this smirky look was the closest he could get. Combined with his talking over the President and the moderator, and overall disrespect for the format, he seemed like a brat accustomed to getting his own way no matter what. Obama did let his emotions sneak onto his face--perhaps he lost his composure--but he was genuine.

Oct. 04 2012 12:19 PM
John A

Chris Christie did not pre-dict a turnaround last night, He pre-sold it. That was the only outcome that could've worked out for his party, so that was the only thing for him to have said.

Oct. 04 2012 12:00 PM
Julie from Brooklyn

I disagree with assessments of Mr. Romney body language as positive. When he was speaking, he was overly aggressive and hyper, and not only in his speech. And, any time that the president was speaking, Mr. Romney had a sardonic smirk on his face. It was NOT a nice, respectful smile, but, instead condescending and negative, both toward the president, and presumably, by extension, anyone who likes the president. I do like the fact that Mr. Romney spent a lot of time looking up (and feel that Mr. Obama spent too much time looking down), but the expression on Mr. Romney's face was always very unpleasant. Gail Collin's description seems very apt.

Oct. 04 2012 11:58 AM
Robert from NYC

I agree with Sheldon about Jim Lehrer losing it. I think it's time for Jim to throw in the towel.

Oct. 04 2012 11:58 AM
Sarah from Weston, CT

I listened to the first half of the debate on NPR. When I did turn on the TV, I noted that the President looked terrible. Perhaps he was not feeling well and was off his game. Either way, Romney pantsed him. If the President cannot stand up to Romney, how is going to stand up to China or Iran? Last night was extremely disappointing. I shared Chris Matthew's frustration.

Oct. 04 2012 11:57 AM
Jill from Westchester

I don't mean this as a dig, I am genuinely curious -- didn't Romney look as if he had just been swimming in a pool with too much chlorine - or was having trouble with his contact lenses? I found it quite distracting.

Oct. 04 2012 11:56 AM

Agree with Joe that Romney seemed on speed. Yet desperately I kept thinking: somebody get Obama some Adderall.

Oct. 04 2012 11:55 AM
Ruth from Brooklyn NY

I felt visually Romney looked more confident and fired up, while Obama looked a little more focused on what he was going to say and didn't look as aggressive and fired up. I felt people would respond to Romney's approach more (classically).

I agree with the facial expressions Brian just mentioned. However, I felt the tone Obama was more appropriate given the state of the nation. I felt Romney's smile was inappropriate and seemed show he was out of touch.

Overall, I felt both candidates made falters physically during the debate.

Oct. 04 2012 11:54 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

I want to know what the guest thought about Jim Lehrer's performance? He seemed to have lost control of the debate pretty quickly.

Oct. 04 2012 11:53 AM

I did the opposite: I listened without watching. Observing body language is a pointless exercise. We should be voting based on platforms, not expressions.

Oct. 04 2012 11:53 AM

Romney ran roughshod over an old man (the moderator).

To me this indicates how he'll run roughshod over senior citizens with the way he will gut their programs if elected.

Romney looked like he was on speed.

Oct. 04 2012 11:52 AM
John A from probably Canada, now.

For me - both people receded in likability. Romney: pluses for not being a Republican message robot, minuses for being a steamroller and a used car salesman. Obama: pluses for trying to do live fact-checking, minuses for failing to get attention.

Oct. 04 2012 11:51 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

First of all, this is not a matter of "optics." This is psychology.

Secondly, the picture of Romney that you have above on this page makes him look completely dimwitted.

Third, I didn't like that Obama looked at the floor during Romney's rants. Maybe he was doing it out of frustration or to keep from laughing, but I thought he should have been looking at Romney or Mr. Lehrer or the audience or the camera, but definitely not at his feet.

I watched the debate on C-SPAN because there is no commentary and the cameras are not all over the place. When I watch/listen to a debate, I want to concentrate on what the participants are saying, not be distracted by other people's spin or bizarre camera angles, flashing lights, visiting pundits, etc.

Oct. 04 2012 11:49 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Optics really matter. But I wonder about Dean's volume-off theory, because it's not how folks watch the debates...

Oct. 04 2012 11:49 AM
Ron Mwangaguhunga from Brooklyn

I listened to WNYC online while tweeting (to media professionals) and facebooking (to old friends) all on my iPad

Oct. 04 2012 11:49 AM
Penelope from Manhattan

Call me ignorant - I assumed the feed was the same for all networks, and didn't surf to confirm that. I should've. NY1 did NOT show the side-by-side, from what I saw (I couldn't sit down to watch until mid-debate).

Oct. 04 2012 11:47 AM
Henry from Katonah

I listened to the debate on WNYC radio - - I would expect more readers of this comment page to say so and spurn indicators like body language. How about necktie color analysis?

Oct. 04 2012 11:42 AM
Brian from Brooklyn, NY

I guess I'm the only one in the world who thought Romney seemed desperately frenetic and Obama relaxed?--seems to most that translated to "aggressive" and weakly "professorial". And what was up with Romney's "sad-smile" between answers--constipated wincing? I preferred Obama whose body language seemed to acknowledge the stupidity the whole charade.

Oct. 04 2012 11:21 AM

And now we have to endure Chris Christie gloat - I could just take Pres. Obama to the woodshed for a good "talking" to. His body language looked defeated in the face of the loud mouth kid, saying nothing but doing all the talking!

Oct. 04 2012 11:20 AM
Lou from Long Island

I agree with some of the other comments. It made a big difference if you were watching on a channel that showed side by side or full screen. Side by side (CNN) Romney was never looking at the the camera, he was always looking off in one direction or the other.
Note in an interview, Jim Lehrer, said that he makes it a strict point to only look at the person speaking.

I interpreted Obama's look as "Here he goes again with the same stump speech points." He then gave a slow reasoned response instead of attacking. (Evidently viewed as a big mistake by almost everyone but me.)

Oct. 04 2012 11:00 AM

For some, the best way to listen & interpret "debates" is to delete the visuals.

Visuals can be distracting and/or irrelevant as well as informative. The debate setting itself may in some instances detract from the information that the viewer perceives and receives.

Oct. 04 2012 11:00 AM
Penny from Manhattan

I'm a TV editor, so I noticed shot choices...
As Romney spoke (usually looking straight at Obama) we often saw him in an over-the-shoulder shot where we ALSO saw that Obama wasn't meeting his look - was looking down, shuffling cards, etc.
But when Obama spoke, I don't think they EVER cut to a complementary over-the-shoulder shot. As a result I don't think I EVER saw what Romney was doing as Obama spoke...
I think that may have exaggerated the sense that Romney was more composed, confident, in-control, and Obama was uncomfortable, etc.

Oct. 04 2012 10:57 AM
Bob from SI

I noticed that when Pres. Obama mentioned the tax breaks that oil companies get (Exxon specifically) that Gov Romney lit up and started to write notes frantically. I assume this was point he could introduce the 90Billion subsidy for solar and wind and the companies that went bancrupt.

Oct. 04 2012 10:47 AM
Wendy from manhattan

At the beginning, I thought Romney was absolutely looking like the winner. But then I switched the channel to CNN, where they were showing side-by-side camera shots, and Romney had the strangest look in his eye much of the time that Obama was speaking. It looked as if he were going to cry, and also body language radiated incredible intensity, as if he was about to jump out of his skin. There's been much commentary about how Obama didn't do well in the reaction shots - looking bored or peeved, and I agree with that - but I'm surprised there hasn't been more commentary about how Romney looked when he was not speaking.

Oct. 04 2012 10:46 AM
Richard Binkele from Tarrytown

I got the feeling while watching the debate that Obama was tired, maybe not feeling well. He was low energy compared to Romney. Maybe he didn't get a good night's sleep. Too bad because he really can't afford to let an opportunity go by.

Oct. 04 2012 10:42 AM
Maggie from Morristown nj

Thw Worst visual was on the split scream with Romney admonishing Obama and Obama with head down looking like a chastised schoolboy. On full screen we could see he was writing but the split screen was overused--to the point of boredom so that I kept switching channels looking for a change. And so Obama appeared to be accepting Romneys " accusations " through most of the debate.
Btw did all channels get the same feed?

Oct. 04 2012 10:41 AM
Elissa from Brooklyn

Hooray for the first intelligent debate I've seen in years. I am grateful to Jim Lehrer for instructing the audience not to respond, eliminating the tedious, applause-grabbing campaign sound bites that have filled debates for years. And, yes, poor Mr. Lehrer lost control of the debate, but he allowed more extended and deeper discussion between the candidates of the topics they did cover.

Oct. 04 2012 08:20 AM
janna from bklyn

gov romney was incredibly rude to both president obama and jim lehrer last night - he constantly interrupted, acted as though he was entitled to follow up his answers while running the clock, and then flipflopping on pretty much everything he's been saying on the campaign trail (which the democrats should use in commercials against him. HINT. HINT.)

and while he consistently crossed the line over from assertive to just plain rude, jim lehrer might as well not have showed up - he was lame. he let gov romney be rude at the presidents' and the audiences' expense as well.

what was most apparent to others who, like myself, grew up being considered a minority, was the smugness with which gov romney seemed to assume it was just fine for him to interrupt was not only the president was saying, but what the audience was trying to listen to him say, without being interrupted by gov romney as well. it was not okay. and the fact that jim lehrer also interrupted the president several times was both unprofessional and rude.

as for the president, i want president obama to get his snark & cool temper back, and go for it. the consequences are way too serious.

Oct. 04 2012 02:44 AM

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