PRINT PAGEFinal Argument: Tone (Part 3) – The Presidential Debate

Written by Roy Black

Trial lawyers start working on their final argument from the first day on a case and keep working it until they get up on their feet and start talking. They continually collect ideas, details, and special facts to weave into arguments. They write out the boiler plate arguments like reasonable doubt, presumption of innocence and how to highlight the critical jury instructions. They know these set-pieces will always be part of the argument. They are not prepared in a rush the night before or off the top of their head. These lessons could have helped the President in the first Presidential debate.

The debates are the closing argument of the election campaign. All the policy has been established like the evidence in a trial. Now comes the summing up. It is not the time for detailed facts but rather an argument why you are the better candidate. It is a time to be in command. Command of the facts, the policy, and to articulate them.

Instead Obama was disjointed, convoluted, tired-looking and seemingly out of sorts. His delivery was halting and without energy. He looked down and appeared distracted, as if he had someplace else to go. It reminded me of Bush the First looking at his watch. Romney was focused, forceful and engaging. He was prepared, rehearsed and ready to perform. He could have gone another 90 minutes. Obama seemed unprepared, while Romney had everything together.

Since this was his final argument, Obama should have had full command of Romney’s prior positions. It seemed Romney threw him off by moving to the center. During the primaries, Romney tried hard to be a right wing conservative but that is not who he is. At this debate he moved to the center and this seemed to surprise Obama. Obama seemed stuck in a groove arguing against Romney’s prior positions and Romney kept denying that those were his babies.

Obama and his team should have had citations to the record. The speeches, the policy statements, the debating points from the Republican primaries. He didn’t need demonstrative exhibits or transcripts but he had to use the old Romney to impeach the new Romney. He seem flustered by Romney’s etch-a-sketch evolution. Obama should have known better because this is Romney’s playbook. He tells his present audience what they want to hear. He dumped the right-wing rhetoric and moved to the center, right where the undecided voters reside.

I think Obama’s strategy was to appear presidential. Not to be too aggressive. To appear calm and in control. But this is a hard game to play. It made him look weak instead. Romney gave him opening after opening yet no forceful rebuttal from Obama. His strategy was misguided. This is not the venue to appear weak and passive.

The problem was not about the substance so much as the style. Obama was lackluster and ill-prepared. Not what we want to see in a president. Presidents have to appear in charge. They can’t show any hesitation or fear. They have to get your trust. He had to connect with the audience, show empathy for struggling citizens, all with some energy and enthusiasm. Someone we can believe in.

I always tell trial lawyers do not start the argument by thanking the jury. It sounds phoney. Stick it in the middle somewhere. The first minute has to grab the jury by the throat and tell them why you should win. Barack, next time don’t start with your anniversary, try the 47% instead.

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3 Comments to Final Argument: Tone (Part 3) – The Presidential Debate

  1. October 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Re: 1st Obama / Romney Debate

    Good read Roy

    Far be it from me to dispute what tools a seasoned attorney such as yourself employs in a case but…

    I wonder what even the best attorney in a closing would do knowing that there will actually be three closings- and when the prosecutor shows-up at the first closing with a whole new case regardless of all of the prior evidence presented and without the rule of discovery to adhere too.

    Perhaps in debates we should seat an actual judge who can stop a sociopath when and if they show up as Mitt Romney did.

    I too was shouting at my TV during the debate as each opening for Obama appeared one after another but in retrospect I wonder, knowing that two more debates were coming- if Obama simply bit his lip, allowed Romney to walk in the door and fully unload a serious of lies for those just now tuning in- and collected all the new and fresh ammo needed for the two coming final arguments and for public consumption in terms of ad spots.

    If President Obama, first shocked, thought quick enough on his feet to figure out what Romney was up too (however insane) and simply moved his Queen into place, then he proved his abilities in leadership however hard it was for his followers to watch.

    We shall see soon.

    Jonah Moriarty

  2. October 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Throughout the debate, I kept questioning why the Obama team did not have anchor points from prior Romney speeches. Romney supplied several good openings during the debate. Plenty of prior material existed that Obama could have cited for specifics to refute any changes in position by Romney. He lost a valuable opportunity to impeach Romney on several matters. The Obama team should have anticipated the re-alignment by Romney and prepared for it.

  3. October 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    When I was in collage I loved collage life. The activities I liked the best were playing in bands with my peers screaming and clapping at the end of each tune. To me study was a drag. It was a necessary evil but it was a “drag”.

    My girlfriend was my second priority. Being home for dinner and spending quality time with her was also more important than school.

    After school, as I moved through my career, I found myself working all-nighters for months at a time. Straightening out the San Diego river became all encompassing. Taking the city from the 10th largest city to the 7th largest city in terms of developing First San Diego River Improvement Project (FSDRIP) took a heavy toll on me. I couldn’t take off and leave my work for someone else to do. If I wasn’t involved and engaged the project would not have gotten the final resolution and notice to proceed. We were on a timeline and I had to perform; or my window of opportunity would soon close. This window closed in September of 1987. Althought the project started 10 years prior to my involvement I had no excuse. The window closed in September of 87, period.

    As you know Roy, these windows close all the time (for example; Key West, Front and Duval Street / Allison Defoor) I’m sure you remember how the city council was ready to bury me. By the way; thanks again for your support.

    I would never want to be the president of the most powerful country in the free world, because the task and time needed to perform the duties are simply overwhelming. I can’t imagine having time to hobnob with celebrities and take off while my underlings worked out details on matters of budget or other pressing issues facing our great nation.

    It would appear today that we will be looking at another four years. My hope is that President Obama will realize that he needs to engage and hobnob with members of congress more then David Letterman and The View. Of course coming to a debate prepared wouldn’t hurt either.

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