Let Us Talk

September 22, 2008

First Presidential Debate – (9pm EST/CNN) Friday, September 26: What Obama Needs to Do in the Debates

 Unfortunately a four-point lead means little at this point in the game especially for a black candidate who needs to be up by 10 points in battleground states to be safe, the game isn’t over yet. 


The next potential game-changer is his first debate with John McCain, and what he needs to do in the debates is precisely what he has not done thus far in that format, and what no Democrat other than Bill Clinton has done effectively in decades: to connect with voters in a way that makes them feel like they know and share his values, feel confident that he will keep them and their families safe, and will do right by people like them.

How does he do that? By following some basic principles, many of which Democrats would do well to follow in every debate at every level of government:

1. Think of your answers as sandwiches, with emotionally evocative and values-driven language at the beginning and end and with the “meat” in the middle. Emotionally evocative opening and closing statements serve three functions: they draw voters’ attention (one of the major function of emotions from an evolutionary standpoint), they signal voters what you are passionate about, and they provide the sound bites that will be replayed over and over on television. The emotional “bread and butter” at the beginning and end can elicit or address voters’ anger, hope, concerns, sense of patriotism, faith, or whatever informs your position and moves voters, or it can be a story from your own life or the lives you’ve encountered on the campaign trail. That is the bread and butter of what voters will remember. Follow it with the “meat”: first, how we got here (indicting the GOP for what it has done and making the causal link to the pain people are experiencing and our moral standing in the world), and second, a very brief bulleted description of what you plan to do (no more than three points, which is the most voters will remember). For example, on health care, start with something like, “I believe in a family doctor for every family. Right now, 50 million working Americans and their families can’t take their kids to the doctor, and the rest of us are watching our co-pays shoot through the roof and our security disappear as insurance companies are raking in record profits.” Then compare McCain’s “you’re on your own, pal” plan that would knock 150 million people off their employer-provided insurance (which would scare the hell out of most voters if they only knew about it — and for good reason) with your own, emphasizing the most central points of your plan: if you’re happy with your doctor or health plan, you will be able to stay with what you have; if you’re not, you’ll have choices, including not only an array of private plans that will have to compete for your dollar but the same plan members of Congress get. End with something that again inspires emotion, “If that plan is good enough for people like me in the Senate, its good enough for the people who pay my salary — the American taxpayer.”

2. Clearly enunciate your principles in virtually every response. Why do you take the position you do, and how does that principle reflect mainstream American values? Get to the specifics after you’ve established the principle, because it cues voters that you’re a person of conviction. The usual Democratic statements such as “I’m for the Second Amendment but for limited regulation of x,y,z” is not a principle, any more than was Al Gore’s debate response in 2004, that he supported regulation of new handguns but not old ones. (What’s the principle? That old guns are rusty? Voters saw through it and thought he wanted to support gun control but didn’t want to say it.) Here’s a principle, and one that distinguishes him clearly from McCain and the GOP: “My basic principle on guns is this: I believe in the rights of law-abiding Americans. That’s why I support the rights of law-abiding Americans to own firearms to hunt and protect their families, and why I support the rights of parents to send their kids to school in the morning and know they’ll come home safely.” That sets the framework for a principled position; for example, against assault weapons (e.g., “If you’re hunting with an M-16, you’re not bringing that meat home for dinner”).

3. Look at the audience and know where the camera is at all times. In his Saddleback performance, Obama split his eye contact between his interviewer, Rick Warren, and his shoelaces. He rarely turned to the camera and his broader television audience. Eye contact and body posture are crucial nonverbal cues in primates including humans, and voters unconsciously process those cues about dominance, sincerity, and so forth. Downcast eyes readily suggest shame, low status, or evasiveness. McCain had been coached by a good media coach to respond to his interview with direct eye contact, often using his name, and then to pivot away toward the audience within one to two seconds. Democrats routinely fail to make use of people who can help them enunciate their positions with strength, conviction, and humor.

4. Avoid dispassionate, meandering, intellectualized answers. Nuance and emotional appeal are not mutually exclusive. Sure, it’s harder to enunciate a principle that recognizes ambiguity than one that emanates from a Manichean worldview of the good guys vs. the bad guys. But people are often relieved when someone speaks to their ambivalence. It isn’t hard to say that business is the engine of our prosperity but that leadership is about keeping that engine on the right track. Nor is it hard to say what most people feel in their gut, that government shouldn’t be in the business of forcing one person to live by another person’s faith, which is why Sarah Palin has no right to plan our families for us, but that you ought to have a very good reason (e.g., the mother’s life or health is seriously in danger) to abort a late-term fetus.

5. Inspire and indict. As I argued in The Political Brain, and in multiple posts here, you can’t win a campaign with one story (about why you should be elected), and no one has ever won the presidency by saying only nice things about himself and his opponent. You have to control the dominant story of who you are (and answer attacks on that story directly and immediately) and the story of who your opponent is and why he’s not the right person for the job or the times.

6. Don’t run from any issue. State your principles clearly and with conviction, and if you worry that the public isn’t with you, turn that into a virtue (by making it a mark of genuineness and courage). The failure to state a clear position on hot-button issues has been a standard Democratic error for decades. Republicans never make this mistake. They’ve been running on a position on abortion that’s at 30% in the polls for years–that life begins at conception, and there’s no room for compromise–and this year they’ve even taken the more extreme position that every rapist has the right to choose the mother of his child. If Democrats don’t run on abortion and contraception this year, when Republicans have governed or threaten to govern with positions so far to the right that you can’t find them on a map of America (e.g., forcing teenagers to have their rapists’ babies, perpetuating the cycle of poverty by making contraceptives unavailable to poor women, teaching only abstinence when it’s nearly impossible to name a Republican who ever practiced it–they deserve another 3 Alitos and a Scalia for good measure.


7. Don’t run from any attack. Answer it with an attack on the attacker. The two biggest mistakes Democrats repeatedly make are to fail to answer an attack and to get on their heels and try to answer every charge. Answer the weakest link in your opponent’s attack and go after him for making it. For example, Obama could easily have addressed the “elitist” charged by simply saying, “Let me get this straight. The guy who has to ask his staff how many homes he has, whose wife says you just can’t get around Arizona without a private jet, and who’s worth over a hundred million dollars is calling the black guy who just recently paid off his student loans elitist? That dog ain’t gonna hunt.”

8. Don’t worry about looking like the angry black man. People don’t see you that way. Your bigger worry is that you don’t look masculine, muscular, and aggressive enough. Don’t let grandpa push you around. (And Joe, that goes for soon-to-be Grandma Palin.)

9. Remember your first mission: to convey, particularly to white voters who are on the fence, that you share their values and understand and care about people like them. Speak their language, talk about what you want and fear for your kids (which is likely the same as what they want and fear for theirs), and don’t hide your values in the fine print of your policy prescriptions. Speak from the gut about what matters to you. A campaign isn’t a debate on the issues. One strong values statement (e.g., “It’s time we had an economy that works again for people who work for a living”) or one strong metaphor (okay, something other than lipstick on a pig) is worth a thousand ten-point plans.

10. Remember your second mission: to make people worry about what would happen if they vote for McCain and Palin. Do you really want to lose your employer-based health insurance and be left on your own to fend for yourself? Do you really want a return to coat-hanger abortions and increase the rate of unwanted pregnancies among poor women and teenagers? Do you really want your teenage son drafted (since there’s no other way to maintain our security while keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and deterring people with “the right stuff” from signing up and staying in the military)? Stress your theme of unity, and contrast it with the hate-fest in Minneapolis and the divide-and-conquer tactics the Republicans have been using since Lee Atwater and Karl Rove came on the scene.

11. Use humor, especially when throwing a punch. Humor is disarming, and well-timed lines will be replayed on cable over and over and will be the only thing people who didn’t watch the debate will know about your performance.

12. Don’t “dumb down” your language, but use words that connect with people and don’t make them feel ignorant. They don’t need to hear about “marginal tax rates.” They need to hear what’s going to happen to their paychecks if you’re in charge of the tax code. Avoid all acronyms and Washington inside baseball. If you’re about to say “S-CHIP,” try instead, “I believe people who work for a living ought to be able to take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick. Plain and simple. My opponent thinks that if your kid has asthma or you have a bad back and can’t get health insurance because of a ‘pre-existing condition,’ tough break.”

13. Keep in mind at all times what stories the other side has effectively told about you (you’re an empty celebrity, uppity, elitist, weak, and outside the mainstream) and counter them at every turn. Keep in mind at all times what stories you want voters to be telling the next day about your opponent (that he’s out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans; that if you like how things are going now, vote for him; and that he claims to be a straight-talking maverick, but it’s hard to know which McCain would show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because he’s been on virtually every side of every issue), and reinforce them at every turn.

14. Remember who your two audiences are: the people who support you already who you want to show up at the polls, and the people who are on the fence who you want to get off on your side. Don’t worry about offending people who already detest you and everything you stand for.

15. Be genuine. Don’t take any position you don’t really believe in. People can tell. And you don’t need to be anything but genuine. The American people agree with you on about 80% of the issues, and as Stan Greenberg and I recently found in polling 10,000 likely voters and putting together a Handbook for Progressive Messaging, Democrats can win on every one of the major issues, from economics, to abortion, to national security, to the role of government, with well crafted, emotionally evocative messages.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Personally, I’d throw away the briefing books and study this list. The debates won’t be won or lost on who jams the most facts into 90 minutes. McCain can’t tell a Sunni from a Shiite. If you don’t know your position and the reasons for it on every issue after two years of campaigning, you’re not going to learn it this week, so don’t bother trying. There are more important things to get right–like making eye contact with your audience.

People want to know who their potential President is, and they want to like, trust, and be able to identify with him.

That’s what Obama needs to accomplish in the debates. 

According to http://www.olemiss.edu/debate/ the debate will begin at 8pm.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.

Read entire brilliant post at:





  1. All good points and exactly what he needs to do.

    Comment by Bruce — September 22, 2008 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

  2. P (email – any news on that voting matter?)

    Comment by Bruce — September 22, 2008 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  3. This is fantastic. You really understand debating. I would love to copy and post this but only with your permission and I will certainly give you credit. This is so good that it needs to go viral. Please share it with the campaign staff where you have been doing your volunteer work.

    Comment by Cats r Flyfishn — September 22, 2008 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

  4. This is excellent advice. I hope Obama follows it.

    Comment by deannaizme — September 22, 2008 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  5. this is great stuff. I hope Dr. Westen gets it directly to obama or his staff. I also hope mccain does not get ahold of it!!

    Comment by angelic1 — September 22, 2008 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  6. Cats,please use it. I am not the author.

    Dr. Westen is the author, see the bottom of the post.

    Comment by Paulette — September 22, 2008 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  7. Heather – even if McCain gets a copy of it he can’t control what Obama says no matter how much he anticipates.

    I think Obama has to keep it simple – in 4th grade english and he’ll be just fine.

    Like Dr. Westen says, this isn’t about winning over those who despise him. This is really about winning those on the fence because we who are going to vote for him ‘will not be moved’.

    He just has to keep it short, sweet and simple.

    Comment by Paulette — September 22, 2008 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

  8. Sorry, I missed reading the credits at the bottom. If this is on HuffPo then Obama will know about it.

    Comment by Cats r Flyfishn — September 22, 2008 @ 6:57 pm | Reply

  9. Cats – thanks for thinking that I could possibly be THAT smart. 🙂

    Comment by Paulette — September 22, 2008 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

  10. Lets just hope McCain doesn’t get hold of it.Ensure that it can not be printed off and keep in on the computer/internet. We all know he doesn’t know how to :”work the email” or the computer.

    Some great points by Dr Westen that every debater needs to know. I think a simple and important item is to be yourself.

    Comment by duttybwoy — September 22, 2008 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

  11. Westen’s article (Point 15) mentions a Handbook for Political Messaging that he and Stan Greenberg authored. Neither Amazon nor Barnes and Noble lists this book, and the only hit I got on Google was for this article. Anygody know anything about it or where it can be obtained?

    Comment by neurophius — September 22, 2008 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  12. Neurophius, it seems that Handbook For Progressive Messaging may not be for retail sale.

    Please send an email to info@westenstrategies.com to see if there’s a way to get a copy.


    Comment by Paulette — September 22, 2008 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

  13. Hello Neurophius

    This might be what you are looking for…

    Click to access Mo2008_MessageHandbookforProgressives.pdf

    Comment by BillCarson — September 22, 2008 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

  14. Bill Carson you are brilliant – thank you!

    Comment by Paulette — September 22, 2008 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

  15. I think Obama need a slogan like:
    “John McCain, Too Little Too Late”

    Comment by Barbara — September 22, 2008 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  16. I hope Obama comes out behind saving AIG, but
    the US needs to have the equity for a large
    percent in the company so we can sell it later. and recoup Or at least be refunded with high interest when things pic

    Comment by Barbara — September 22, 2008 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

  17. I do hope Barrack Obama back the bailout with strings attached. Especially the US receiving a large
    percentage back. Owning allot of there assets is probably best. So that when things pick up we can sell it off and possibly replenish our plundered Social Security Funds

    Comment by Barbara — September 22, 2008 @ 11:52 pm | Reply

  18. >Bill Carson you are brilliant – thank you!

    You’re welcome. 🙂

    Comment by BillCarson — September 22, 2008 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

  19. Good guidelines! I just heard that Obama has the same debate “coach” as Gore and Kerry. I hope Obama brings some fresh skills to the debate. Gore and Kerry were somewhat anti-climatic.

    Comment by Bell — September 23, 2008 @ 12:04 am | Reply

  20. Bell – I think Obama is a pretty good debater. He just has to keep his answers short, sweet and simple.

    He needs to speak to the people on the fence and ignore those who aren’t going to vote for him anyway.

    I’m hosting a party like you are, this should be fun.

    Comment by Paulette — September 23, 2008 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  21. paulette, i meant that mccain would use the tips to his advantage, not that he’d anticipate obama’s points/responses. lol.

    Comment by angelic1 — September 23, 2008 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  22. I read today that Joe Biden is planning to step out of the race soon so Hillary Clinton can get on Obama’s ticket. The reason for bowing out will allegedly be for health reasons (supposed aneurysm?), even though his good health was already confirmed before his nomination as VP running mate. He’s not getting hardly any press coverage compared to Palin. His stepping down sounds like a scam just to get Hillary’s supporters and stir up the media.

    Comment by James in Texas — September 24, 2008 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  23. James – I believe that is a rumor.

    Comment by Paulette — September 24, 2008 @ 7:11 am | Reply

  24. Pulling ahead in EC – Obama will put away the unemotional McBush in these debates – not to mention how Biden will destroy No-media Palin!!

    Comment by avant/chicago — September 24, 2008 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  25. 8pm in which timezone? that’d be very interesting to know

    Comment by RMH — September 26, 2008 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  26. Coverage begins at 8pm EST. Debate begins at 9pm EST.

    Comment by Paulette — September 26, 2008 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  27. Ask McCain why he lies about Sarah Parlin
    not asking for earmarks. She asked for one
    last year as well as this year.

    Comment by Ruth Sabongan — October 7, 2008 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

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