Kathleen Riley

President Barack Obama is known as a talented public speaker. Unfortunately, this was not apparent following his performance in the first presidential debate against his GOP opponent, Governor Mitt Romney. Governor Romney outshone his Democrat counter part while President Obama’s performance was unimpressive. Quoting several news articles, President Obama looked “tired“, “disinterested“, and “passive.” For a skilled public speaker, Obama surprised people with his lackluster performance in this first debate.

This begs the questions: What went wrong?

Many journalists and political scientists offered several explanations as to why President Obama did not preform well. The concept that I am going to focus on is the idea of the “presidential bubble,” which places incumbents at a disadvantage because they are constantly surrounded by people who agree with them. Unlike their opponents, incumbents, especially incumbent presidents, are not challenged and are used to some degree of deference. They do not have people debating with them or questioning them nearly as much as their opponents do. When challengers begin to attack the president, the president is not as prepared or used to it as he was in the previous debate cycle. According to this theory, it serves as no surprise that President Obama’s performance during his first debate paled in comparison to Governor Romney’s.

According to a Washington Post article, four of the last five presidents lost their first reelection debate. Bill Clinton was the only one not judged to lose a debate. President Jimmy Carter and President George H.W. Bush were not reelected, but President George W Bush and President Ronald Reagan were. Carter and H W Bush were thought to have performed poorly in the following debates, but Reagan was able to turn around his performance. President George W Bush performed poorly in all three and lost the popular race while still securing enough electoral votes to gain reelection.

An article in Fox Business describes President Reagan’s performance in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Reagan looked confused and his answers were not concise, which led people to question his age and competency.  Professor Mitchell McKinney from the University of Missouri attributed Reagan’s performance to this notion of the presidential bubble. Reagan was so used to having everyone agree with him, that he was not used to being challenged or attacked. Reagan decided to turn his weakness on its head. In the second debate, Reagan took his opponent head on. He questioned his opponent’s lack of age and experience when he said, “I am not going to exploit…my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

After this debate, President Reagan was jarred from his presidential bubble much like President Obama was during his most recent debate. If President Obama wants a comeback, then maybe he should look to President Reagan’s comeback and take some notes. After years of being compared to Reagan, I do not think that he would mind following in his footsteps by turning it around in the second debate and securing his second term in office.


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