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Lakoff: What Obama Needs to Do in Tomorrow's Debate

Like it or not, debates are about performance, not wonky policy details.

US President Barack Obama walks to the Oval Office upon his return at the White House in Washington, DC, on September 25, 2012 after attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Obama delivered an unapologetic defense of American values and



As Nate Silver, NY Times polling expert put it, “Instant polls conducted after the debate are suggestive of something between a tie and a modest win for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.”

Biden held his own and maybe a bit more. That was important. But President Obama has to do a lot better than that. He has to go beyond the policy wonk to be a moral leader once more. Here’s how Jennifer Granholm put it on her Current TV show  video.

On the whole, the public and especially the undecided voters don’t keep track of policy details and which numbers are right. The worst thing the president can do is to just compare details of policy. That just elevates Romney to the status of an equal, who can come back with lies that will sound just as good if not better to most of the undecideds.

The tv debates are not primarily about policy details and the numbers in themselves. As  Ronald Reagan showed, the debates are about choosing a moral leader. And we do this through a performance.

Reagan didn’t debate policy details and numbers. Instead he did the following:

  • Stated his values.
  • Connected with the viewers by projecting empathy.
  • Communicated clearly.
  • Appeared authentic, appeared to be saying what he believed.
  • Was positive and upbeat.

Those are the basic rules of the performances called presidential debates. The content that goes with the performance is to show that you will be a moral leader. Policy discussions and facts can flesh that out, but those are the ground rules.

Romney was prepped the Reagan way — to project the necessary appearance for this performance.  The President was not. President Obama needs to follow the ground rules, especially because he IS authentic, he DOES have the right values, he DOES have empathy.

Moreover, those moral values are really what this election is about. The president sees democracy as based on citizens caring about each other and using a government as an instrument of that care, protecting and empowering us all, equally, through public provisions. America started out with building roads, bridges, public schools, a national bank, a patent office, public records, etc. We now have many more citizen provisions — clean air, clean water, safe food and drugs, sewers, policing, disease control, a federal reserve, basic scientific research, college loans. Now we need, and have, more that is provided for all. Think of a cell phone. It couldn’t exist without what citizens have provided via the government: the computer science research, the internet, the satellite system, the PDF system. Once you have all these things, you have certain basic freedoms — you can live well and maybe start a business, or work for one, on the basis of what your fellow citizens have given you. The issue here is freedom, the real material freedom that other Americans have provided us with. You can only build it starting from what other Americans have built for you.

When the president made his “You didn’t built that” gaffe, he was intimidated out of talking about this truth. But this is the central truth of this campaign. Citizens built all the mechanisms for each of us to access. If you worked hard to build a business, you used all that to start with. The president needs to go back to that deep truth and say it right this time. You, our citizens, have provided all this not just to yourselves but to every American. That’s what makes America America.

You, the citizens, use our common government to make this country what it is.

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