Tonight may mark the first time in history that half the country is actually hoping to see an angry black man.
Well, maybe not angry. Perhaps combative is a better word. On second thought, assertive would be less threatening than either of those descriptors.
In terms of public perception, that’s the kind of nuanced madness President Barack Obama will confront in his second debate against Mitt Romney.
The question is this: Can the president come on strong against the Republican challenger without being perceived as angry? Or does he have to be firm but restrained, very carefully picking his shots?
We’ve already seen what happens when Obama is too chilled out. He has been roundly criticized since the Oct. 3 debate for coming across as unassertive and for failing to challenge Romney on statements that were clearly false.
But surely Obama cannot launch the kind of frontal attack that Vice President Joe Biden unleashed on Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate. His grinning aside, Biden provided a textbook performance on how to dominate an opponent.
Following Biden’s act would not be hard. Problem is, as a black man Obama is subject to a double standard that has dogged African Americans for centuries now. Especially in the nation’s workplaces, white men and women routinely are rewarded with pay raises and promotions for being aggressive. Black men and women who display the same assertiveness get sent to the timeout corner. (They call it “career advancement,” otherwise known as anger management training).
Such labeling is a form of control that dates way back to slavery days and was transferred through generations, demolishing livelihoods along the way.
Obama has to make sure the double standard doesn’t destroy his chance for re-election.
I think it’s safe to say that he’ll do all right on this one. Indeed, part of the reason he is the first black president is that he possesses a demeanor and temperament that, for whatever reason, puts many whites at ease.
However, the traits that worked to Obama’s benefit throughout his meteoric rise came back to bite him when he got too laid back. He was so harshly denounced by supporters for being passive that he now has to avoid the temptation to shift to the opposite extreme – overcompensating to prove himself. No one expects the president to do a Mike Tyson impersonation and bite off Romney’s ear. Still, even an aggressive Obama would appear so obviously out of character that he could draw more criticism.
In short, he has to pull off a very delicate high wire act.
For starters, Obama’s strategists are counting on the debate format to work partly to his advantage. In the first debate, Romney and Obama looked like two mannequins propped up behind their podiums. Tonight’s contest, however, will be town hall format, which is a more free-flowing affair. The candidates can walk around on stage and address questions from audience members.
Unlike Romney, who is notoriously stiff with audiences, Obama’s style is very different. He can’t sing like Al Green, but he sure enough can work a crowd. That alone won’t provide enough of an edge for him to win.
Nobody asked my opinion, but I think Obama has got to approach this one like a heavyweight championship fight (Tyson notwithstanding). If I were his cornerman, here are some of the brilliant tips I would urge him to employ in the debate strategy:
1 – Forget about Oct. 3. For whatever reasons, you had one bad night. We presume Michelle has put you on notice: “That can’t happen again!”
2 – Use the phrase “47 percent” at least 47 times. If Romney doesn’t present an opening, create one yourself.
Moderator: “Mr. President, how do you propose to keep our military strong?”
Obama: “I’ll do what needs to be done to protect the entire nation, INCLUDING THE 47 PERCENT!”
3 – Let no lie go unchallenged. In fact, spend some pre-debate time practicing in front of the mirror. Repeat, over-and-over: “What Mr. Romney just said is a damned lie.”
4 – Look presidential. You have been doing this job for four years now. Stand tall, head held high, and reassure the American people with words like: “I got this!”
5 – Make it plain. Break it down as if for high school graduates rather than doctoral students. When explaining the economy or Obamacare, re-use Bill Clinton’s line: “It’s arithmetic.”
6 – Show compassion. Let voters know you understand that millions of people are experiencing hardship. Plagiarize Bill again, as if these were your own words: “I feel your pain.”
7 – Close strong. In your final statement, close dynamically – but not with too much force or animation.
You’re the president, but remember, you still risk being viewed as an angry black man.