If rhetoric is akin to a chess game, with strategies, maneuvers, feints and sudden attacks (sort of like boxing), then Wednesday’s first debate was just the opening gambit. Neither candidate performed his expected role: Romney became a born-again moderate redistributionist, while Obama retreated to the chilly Olympian heights of the Presidency, giving all the correct answers but conveying none of the necessary emotions. So everyone says Obama lost the rhetorical battle (which is always to persuade your audience by connecting to them both emotionally and substantively), though if you read the transcript he pretty much countered everything Romney claims. It just didn’t feel that way.
In Aristotelian terms (Rhetoric, 1356 A), oratorical persuasion relies on three elements: ethos (establishing an image or identity), logos (the appeal to reason through argumentation), and pathos (arousing the audience’s passion). All three have to work in tandem. On Wednesday, Obama failed at pathos, but Romney is now even more vulnerable on ethos and logos because his identity is ever-shifting and his arguments don’t add up.
Romney’s is now totally exposed as Etch-A-Sketch Man, Hollow Man. The rhetorical key is that Obama did not surrender his authenticity or authority, and did not shape-shift. His identity, gravitas, and dignity remained firmly intact. He banked his fires and stayed within himself because he’s the one with a core and a consistency. He still has authority because he is the author of himself. He just needs sharper focus and cogency, as Jonathan Alter put it to Rachel Maddow.
He needs presence, not just reporting as present.
The Town Hall format of the next encounter should prove more conducive to openly challenging Romney face to face. Obama can try a little more of that scoffing, mocking tone he clearly excels at when he allows himself off the leash. (He did it a bit on Wednesday, like when he said that Romney’s new campaign slogan should be “never mind.”)
And let’s also hope for the return of Wednesday’s no-show memes that play so well for Obama–practically every women’s issue, “the 47%”, immigration, labor rights, Republican obstructionism, Bain, Romney’s offshore tax shelters, etc. Obama is playing the long game and betting that Romney will not wear well over the next few weeks as his evasions, hypocrisies and contradictions become transparent. Like Warren Buffet says, you don’t know who’s not wearing trunks until the tide goes out.