Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
October 3, 2012

The Optics of the First Romney – Obama Debate: Obama’s Grin, and Paying For It

Screen Shot 2012 10 04 at 12 46 25 AM

I’m sure some people would explain it as Obama sticking to the high road. Or protecting a lead. Or being overly concerned, if he was more aggressive, about looking like the angry black man. But then, my sense is that Obama just didn’t take Romney seriously — at all.

What stood out as particularly significant was how often, and at inappropriate times, Obama would flash that usually wide grin, particularly when Romney offered statements that were over-the-top. It had the quality of “you can’t seriously believe that, can you?” Obama’s expression also having the faint (and wishful) echo of Reagan’s “there you go again.”

Screen Shot 2012 10 04 at 12 58 04 AM

The thing is, though, Romney kept his temper in check enough that he didn’t seem that belligerent, often exhibiting that unfamiliar and, I’m sure well-practiced, doe-eyed expression. (What probably also helped keep his temperature down was how easily he intimidated, and thus neutralized the moderator by Jim Lehrer.)

What I tweeted at the end of the night was that Obama was too gracious by half, Obama displaying deference which just seemed out of place. I’m thinking a little differently about it now, though.

Screen Shot 2012 10 04 at 1 48 58 AM

Screen Shot 2012 10 04 at 12 52 06 AM

Screen Shot 2012 10 04 at 12 56 12 AM

What with all the instances where Obama seemed to agree with Romney, or let him off the hook, I think what we were seeing in Obama was actually an obsequiousness. Harking back to some of the early Democratic debates and encounters with Hillary, it looked to me like Obama was actually (watch the chin) demonstrating a haughtiness — as if the President went into the debate feeling that Romney just wasn’t that viable, thus worth the effort.

Obama Michelle post debate Denver 2012

As a result, it looked like Obama wasn’t ready for prime time. The post-debate scene was particularly indicative of how flat-footed the President was last night. Chip Somodevilla captured it brilliantly in the photo above (which I really doubt will be published anywhere, it’s that cringe-worthy) of Romney firmly ensconced at the podium while the President and the First Lady are awkwardly looking for direction.

Beyond that, consider the power dynamics on stage immediately after the debate concluded:

Screen Shot 2012 10 03 at 11 39 29 PM

You have relative parity in this first photo, though the Romney’s “family tap” is already on.

Screen Shot 2012 10 03 at 11 40 49 PM

Notice how the action shifts right, even if simply based on numbers. Even still, there are the Obama’s looking like the guests at a Romney bar-b-que.

Screen Shot 2012 10 03 at 11 41 38 PM

I like this image because, in the whole power mix, Romney (and his family, too) packaged their competitiveness with a friendly face.

Screen Shot 2012 10 03 at 11 42 30 PM

Finally, if Romney has been weak during the campaign in terms of detail and finishing touches, what topped things off, given how fast the Obamas made their exit, was the Romney clan holding down the stage.

I guess the expression of a coach or a superior officer in this instance would be: wipe that grin off your face! Next round, hopefully Obama will find it in him to take Romney seriously.

(screen shots: C-SPAN. photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images caption: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks on as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) stands with his wife and First lady Michelle Obama after the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government.)

  • rhariman

    Good job, Michael. I was counting on you to grab those split screens, and you gave us more as well. The debate was a disaster for the Democrats from start to finish, even if the sound wasn’t on.

  • http://twitter.com/kidzmom1 kidzmom1

    I got a completely different read from the Romney’s remaining on stage at the end. It had the sense of guests overstaying their welcome while the hosts went off to bed. AND since it WAS the Obama’s 20th wedding anniversary, I may not be too far from the mark. *nudge, wink*

  • acm

    “Disaster” seems a little strong. Romney looked collected and authoritative, two things his campaign has been sorely missing of late. Obama took a quieter approach, citing a lot of studies and facts, but being a bit weak in the fact of Romney’s complete willingness to throw facts (and even positions) to the winds. I think Obama felt he didn’t need to attack, and he’s probably right, but the result was that everybody called it a win for Romney, and only time will tell whether that is enough to change anybody’s views on the two candidates.

    Personally, I was a little creeped by Mitt’s smile during Obama’s speeches (which you don’t have here) — it reminded me most of a 6-year-old looking at his first crush (!?!) — but he succeeded in not appearing either angry or superior, which shows good coaching. I couldn’t really put my finger on Obama’s affect — he seemed a little tired and grumpy, took many notes, was occasionally incredulous by Romney’s claims but didn’t really show any strong emotions. Then again, that’s sort of his persona — cool, hard to ruffle — so it’s unlikely to make any new impressions.

    I don’t really know who the truly “undecided” voters are, and thus I
    don’t know what they looked for or saw here. The media wants a
    horse-race, so they will make the most of Romney’s relative success (and maybe downplay fact-checking? not sure). Debates tend not to change minds, yet we remain transfixed…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570058329 Catherine McCallum

    What about Romney’s irritating smile? What about Romney’s irritating lies? What about Romney’s irritating bullying of the moderator? What about Romney’s irritating parroting of the same old crap, punctuated by his irritating flip-flops? What about the fact that most of the time that Romney was yammering, we had to mute the tv because he was unbearable?

    This is really, really not a win for Romney. The talking heads are spinning the narrative they want, not describing the debate as it happened. If anything, I’d call this another strike against the analysts, who have again proved themselves worse than useless.

    • Stan B.

      Thoroughly prepped and primed, Romney brought his A game- and it showed!
      Obama let many of Romney’s accusations slide, and as a result, gave
      them a legitimacy they did not deserve. I can’t believe he didn’t have
      something, anything to shut them up about Solyndra once and for all. And when he did take Romney to task, it
      was without passion, depth or emotion. The kind of lacklustre
      performance Ali would display when engaging an opponent that was clearly
      out of his league- and that the opponent, at his absolute possible
      best, would take full advantage of. At the conclusion when Obama asked for our vote, it was with all the enthusiasm of an afterthought.

    • jonst

      man, that was a BIG gulp of koolaid….I’m impressed.

  • woodka

    rope a dope? first Obama ad is already out calling Romney on his debate lies…

  • black_dog_barking

    Bringing out the boys with the little woman at the end of the debate looks like an innovation — chalk one up for Willard! The sheer bulk and numbers make the president and first lady seem smaller, something more in line with the fever dreams of the tea party.

    ‘Course, two can play this game. Had the Obama girls come out it would have been game over for the Stormin’ Morman and his posse — bulk and numbers obliterated by the girls’ photo-genius. I admire the president’s sense of fair play.

    • glenn

      Did I just imagine it, or did Ann Romney try to boss people around on the stage? She was tugging on Mitt and also her sons’ sleeves and giving them some kind of directions or orders. It looked odd.

  • 1nancy2

    I thought R. looked like a madman and his coloring, eyes, red mark above his lips, made him look crazed. O. should have knocked him b ack; let him get a/way with too much..Geez, at least speak Bain, 47 %. He could have locked it away and did not. I am NOT happy.

    • lq

      When Romney stated to Fox yesterday that the 47% was a completely wrong thing to say, I realized the genius of not challenging him during the debate – when he would have trotted out this bare faced lie to an audience of millions, and if challenged, it would have devolved into the school yard ‘yes i did – no you didn’t’ dialogue. I also think the one time Romney strayed off the script was the Big Bird moment, and we are still talking about it. Obama plays long ball.

  • lq

    Michael, you said ‘… Romney kept his temper in check enough that he didn’t seem that belligerent, ….’, but to me, and I think to a great deal of other women, he was stunningly overbearing and rude. Reminded me of every bad boss and bad boyfriend in my life.

  • Cactus

    I’ve listened to a lot of back and forth about this debate
    today and here is where I’ve come down — I think Romney’s goal was to go on the
    attack (no wimp he), change his positions at the last minute to throw Obama off
    kilter, and lie like an s.o.b. In that, he was successful. Obama’s goal was to
    not lose his temper (i.e., angry black man). I think that took all his energy.

    His rapid blinking and controlled speech when answering Mitt,
    indicated to me that he WAS angry, but I can’t tell whether at Mitt’s lying,
    switching positions or aggression. It is disconcerting to be dealing with such
    an accomplished liar and one never knows when the liar will abruptly switch
    positions. After all, the truth makes no difference to them and they feel free
    to pick any lie that suits the occasion.

    I’m among the women who saw Romney’s aggression as menacing
    and bullying; I doubt had I been in Obama’s place I could have remained so
    calm. But perhaps Obama should ditch Kerry as his coach and hire Jennifer
    Granholm.

    I did hear one comment that I thought was interesting; in a
    series of debates, you let your opponent run it out in the first one. That way
    you know all his tricks, good/bad points, then you plan against that for the
    second debate. Is that what Obama was doing? I don’t know, but I sure hope
    so.

    As for Leher, what a waste of a decent suit. If I were his
    boss, his ass would be out the door. However, Romney’s stomping all over him
    and out-shouting him is typical teapublican behavior. They do that every time
    they are on TV with someone on the other side. Just keep talking even if it’s
    not your turn. You may be unintelligible, but your opponent won’t be heard,
    either, and that’s the goal.

    • black_dog_barking

      In the 2008 Democratic primaries a surprised Clinton campaign never recovered from Super Tuesday. For four solid months the Obama campaign withstood withering political fire from a well funded, very determined organization whose resumé included eight years in the White House. BHO knows how to play this game.

  • playera

    You don’t show the split screens of Obama standing there with his head down, taking notes I suppose. Much of the time when Rmoney was talking, Obama had his head down. This looked too much to me like Obama was embarrassed or ashamed, standing there like a chastised young man getting a lecture from a superior. I didn’t like it.

  • Kailuahale

    Obama with his head down mirrored what i was feeling – looking at the lying shit-eating grinning Romney makes me queasy. I ended up feeling like I just trusted the president more, felt safer around him. Romney bullying of the moderator was disgusting and so telling. The posse of sons at the end just makes me wonder what they truly think of their old man’s willingness to lie, and lie and lie some more. But, I hear they get gifts of a cool million a year.

  • http://twitter.com/georgieporger k.s.l.

     I have attempted to understand the shift in the polls of women voters after this election. I could not understand this. Then I read a news feed on Facebook from a 50 y/o cousin to my 58 y/o brother: “now I know who Romney reminds me of……my handsome cousin”. In that sentence I thought this came down to a (practiced, false) smile and a scowl. Optics and the interpretation therein. I do not want to over interpret this comment, but I feel the optics tapped in to something. Not sexual, but something along the lines of who do I want as my idealized older brother? Not sure. Would love response. Full disclosure I am a psychologist/psychoanalyst and democrat. Family members I referred to support Romney

Refresh Archives

Random Notes