After the President grimaced

When Obama watched video of the debate, “he grimaced. ‘It’s worse than I thought’ ran through his mind.”

That was 2008. Obama was just beginning his run for president (“Game Change,” John Heilemann, Mark Halperin).

Four years later, after his first debate with Romney, President Obama was probably thinking the same thing.

A few observations:

1) Anyone—even the President of the U.S., even a masterful speaker—can have a bad night.

2) Lots of people will tell you, “anyone can have a bad night,” especially when you’ve just had a really, really bad night.

3) Knowing that “anyone can have a bad night,” does not make your night any better. Or your next day.


Still. When President Reagan lost his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, he looked tired and confused, noted the Wall Street Journal (10/5/12).

And “in 8 of the 10 election cycles since 1976, the polls moved against the incumbent” after the first debate (Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, NY Times, 10/8/12).

Why do U.S. Presidents often lose the first debate?

One reason: lack of practice. Romney had 19 debates on his way to the nomination; Obama, 0.

Practice does not make perfect. It only makes you better.

But didn’t Obama prepare? Sure, but how long, how well?

“Hours before the debate . . . (his advisers) were nervous that he was underprepared” (NY Times 10/4/12).


Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and his sparring partner, Senator Rob Portman, practiced relentlessly.

Senator Portman had been playing Barack Obama in mock debates since 2008. That year, rehearsing with John McCain, Portman was so fierce that McCain’s wife, Cindy, started crying.

“You have to be mean,” Portman told CNN (10/3/12), “so the candidate you’re helping is ready for the worst of it.”

In 1984, after Reagan’s weak first debate, he roared back in the next one.

And in 2008, after Obama grimaced, he resolved to “to get this right” (“Game Change”).

Tip: Anyone can have a bad night—what matters is what you do the next day.


Forget perfect.

Commit to continuous, unrelenting, keep-practicing-forever improvement.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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