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5 Leadership Lessons Learned From the 2012 Debates

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A continuation of where we left off with Leadership Don'ts from Presidential Debates.

Tonight, the curtain falls on weeks of high-stakes political theater. This evening’s third and final debate will center on foreign policy, an issue that has received scant attention during an election cycle centered on the economy. Depending on who you ask, the final showdown is a tipping point…or an unceremonious end. After two contentious meet ups, the potential for a game change seems lower as competition for viewers is higher (Monday Night Football and game seven of the NLCS are both pulling for eyeballs tonight).

As the race enters its final phase, what have we learned from these debates? Beginning with President Obama’s widely panned Denver debate performance that ceded momentum (and the polling lead) to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the debates have proven more important this election cycle than perhaps any other since 1960. As we move into the home stretch of an election that is far closer than seemed possible just a few weeks ago, it’s worth reflecting on what the debates have shown us about leadership, appearances and our politics.

  • Leaders, everyone is deserving of your time. President Obama’s first debate did not go well. Even he agrees. Despite a much improved second showing, the memory of what he jokingly described as a “long nap” during the first meet up has been hard to erase. In part, it stemmed from the appearance that Obama simply did not want to be there. His aversion to eye contact, the lack of preparation in his prepared remarks and a limp defense of his own record all gave the appearance that Obama felt Romney wasn’t worthy of his time or preparation. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
  • Preparation never goes out of style. If nothing else, the marked improvement in Obama’s debate performance between the first and second debate shows why preparation makes all the difference. Romney spent weeks preparing for the debate. Of that preparation, White House senior advisor David Plouffe said ahead of the first debate that “[Romney’s] prepared more than any candidate I think maybe in history.” It showed. By contrast, asked before the first debate how he felt about preparing, Obama described it as a “drag.” That also showed. It goes without saying that preparation is the key to performing well in any situation—and the President gave us all a good lesson in its virtues.
  • Playing not to lose is a losing strategy. Beware the underdog. Perhaps the Washington National’s provide the best example of this point—when you’re ahead in a game , you must continue to play to win (The Nats blew a 6-0 lead in game five of the NL division series in spectacular fashion). The moment you seek to defend your gains is the moment you begin giving ground. With the President way ahead in the polls going into the first debate, the “playing not to lose strategy” employed before the largest debate viewing audience in years was a losing strategy. With a little fire in his eyes, the President played a whole different kind of game during the second debate. He wanted to win—instead of not lose.
  • An aggressive style has significant tradeoffs. The vice-presidential and second presidential debates were both considered tense, antagonistic and aggressive affairs. Joe Biden’s laughing and smirking, Romney’s attempts to railroad the moderator and “you’ll get your turn” put downs of the President, Obama’s live fact-checking and attacks on Romney. The base of each party loved it. Independents and those mythical beasts known as “undecideds” were turned off. A more aggressive style may help with short term gains but it doesn’t win hearts and minds in the long run.       
  • Facts. We don’t need no stinking facts. Perhaps the most tragic thing we’ve witnessed this election cycle is the death of facts. The facts, if they exist at all, haven’t seemed to matter. Both candidates have played fast and loose with the facts, but many objective observers have noted that Romney has played much looser with them—seamlessly shifting positions and denying old ones. Let us not forget the words of Romney pollster Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” The lessons here have yet to be determined, though the implications of rewarding post-truth campaigns seem perilous—both for our politics and the very idea of integrity.  

What's your take on the 2012 debates?

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Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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