Debate impressions: A reversal in body language?

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(NEW YORK, AP) — Big Bird, binders and … bayonets! Well, at last we know the three Twitter memes of the debate season — and they all start with ‘B.’

But beyond President Barack Obama’s ‘bayonet’ zinger — more on that in a moment — the final presidential debate was notable for how the two candidates, in ways verbal and nonverbal, switched roles in a sense from their first debate. This time, political communication analysts say, Mitt Romney seemed more passive and defensive, and Obama more forceful and in command.
And speaking of that word “command,” the president was eager to use it whenever he could — to show how he and only he had the policies, temperament and experience for the top job. “As commander in chief .. ” Obama began more than one answer.
Did his tactics work? Some impressions from the third and last presidential debate, from analysts of political communication and body language:
Let’s get the sports analogies over with: Some analysts focused on how Romney was playing it safe this time — or “playing for a draw,” in the words of Jonathan Paul, director of debate at Georgetown University. “That seemed to be his strategy in the questions of foreign policy.” In other words, first make no mistakes.
“Romney’s purpose was not to lose,” said Jerry Shuster, who teaches political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. “He was underplaying, almost demure. Attack was not part of his strategy.” Analysts noted, though, that this may have been the least risky strategy when dealing with issues of foreign policy.
As for Obama, he knew he had to come appearing presidential and leader-like, and he did so, Shuster said: “He came prepared to be presidential and prepared to win.”
Call it the great pivot: Romney managed to veer the conversation a number of times to domestic issues, an area where he had more definitive things to say.
“You could tell he didn’t want this debate to be about foreign policy — he wanted it to be about jobs and China,” Paul said.
But did it work? It probably depended on who was listening. “I call it deviation, rather than a pivot,” Shuster said.
The difference on Monday night, added Paul, was that as opposed to the first debate, Obama was better prepared to answer those domestic questions.
What happened to the boxing match (sorry, another sports analogy) that was the second presidential debate?
Thanks mostly to the change in format — the second debate was a town-hall style meeting, whereas on Monday night the candidates were seated at a small desk — the debate was a lot less physical. You didn’t see a lot of personal space violations.
There was also less room for the interruptions, on both sides, that bothered some viewers in the second debate.
But even though the two men were sitting down and close to each other, there was some fodder for body language experts like Lillian Glass, a body language coach in Los Angeles.
“Romney was definitely nervous,” Glass said. “He was sweating on his upper lip. That’s the nervous system kicking in.”
However, Glass liked the body language that Romney exhibited later in the debate, a back-straight posture that she termed “powerful.”
“They both were at the top of the game,” she said. “It was a draw. They both get As.”
Most analysts, though, felt Obama was more successful than his opponent in getting across the message he needed to: that he was the presidential one. Facial expressions reinforced that.
“Romney seemed to frown a lot,” Glass said.
As for Obama, “The president made good eye contact, balancing it between his opponent and the moderator,” Shuster said. “He also maintained a steady gaze, as if to say, ‘What I am saying is on target.'” Shuster saw Romney’s expression as more a grin than a frown or a smirk, as some called it — albeit a very uneasy grin.
“He had that grin when he listened to Obama, which to me said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say in response to this,'” Shuster said.
The responses Romney did give were problematic for him on another level, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. While Obama got flak in Denver for nodding in agreement with his opponent, this time it was Romney who found himself agreeing with a number of Obama’s pronouncements on foreign policy.
“You can’t indict someone for a foreign policy you basically agree with,” Jamieson said. And that was compounded by Romney’s apparent reluctance to rebut a number of Obama’s criticisms, she said.
“The danger for Romney is that he didn’t respond to charges that he’s inconsistent,” Jamieson said. “He didn’t specifically rebut much of anything.”
Romney’s moderate responses did have one big advantage, Jamieson added: They probably helped reverse the perception among some that he would be more likely to bring the country to war. She says a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has indicated that perception is a vulnerability for Romney.
Who knew that Big Bird would have a moment this election season? And wasn’t it even weirder when it was binders, that essential school supply, that emerged in the sunlight?
This time it was bayonets, after an Obama comment that was the most tweeted all evening and is probably just in the early stages of its pop-culture shelf life. When Romney repeated his criticism that the U.S. Navy is too small and has fewer ships than it did in 1916, Obama was ready:
“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said, painting Romney as out of touch. “We have these things called ‘aircraft carriers’, and planes land on them.”
Was it snark, or simply a clever use of humor?
“I thought it was very effective — one of his best moments,” said Paul, the Georgetown debate coach.
Shuster, at the University of Pittsburgh, said the best thing about the remark was how it illustrated, pithily, the president’s view on military spending — one of the few foreign policy areas on which the candidates have real disagreements.
Now the existential question: Does any of it matter to the election results?
Pundits universally declared Romney the winner of the first debate, and Obama the winner, albeit by a much narrower margin, of the second. The president was perceived by many to have won the third, but perhaps a tweet from Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it best.
“Glancing down Twitter,” he tweeted. “Shocker: All D’s think O won, all R’s think R won.”