President Obama’s fiery performance in the second presidential debate on Tuesday left media pundits perplexed by the 180 degree turnabout from his flat demeanor in the first debate: “Perhaps it was mere fatigue that night in Denver. Or overconfidence. Or lack of preparation. Or the altitude,” mused Politico’s Roger Simon, or as the president himself said, “I was too polite.”
It was preparation, no question. We have no way of knowing just how much time and effort each candidate devoted to preparation, but we do know that on the day before that first debate, Mr. Obama made a campaign stop at Hoover Dam and, according to the Wall Street Journal:
… complained Monday during a phone call with a campaign volunteer that his aides are "keeping me indoors all the time…making me do my homework." However, a brown tarp blocking the view of the resort's basketball court suggests Mr. Obama has been shooting some baskets between sessions.
In sharp contrast, in the run up to the second debate, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Obama spent
… three days of prep sessions that began Saturday at a five-star resort in Williamsburg….Outside the sessions, Mr. Obama has spent time walking the grounds of the resort, which is set along the James River, and working out at the gym
The difference was dramatic and, because the media is abuzz with commentary about body language, eye contact, succinctness, and assertiveness, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of preparation: facts.
By far, the most dramatic moment in Tuesday's debate came when Governor Romney challenged Mr. Obama on his handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya:
ROMNEY: There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.
The president replied:
OBAMA: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State,
our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead
when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what
we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as
Commander in Chief.
CNN’s Candy Crowley, the moderator of the debate, turned to Mr. Romney and said:
CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to...
ROMNEY: Yes, I -- I...
CROWLEY: ... quickly to this please.
ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That's what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.
It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?
The governor glowered at the president. Mr. Obama stared back.
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror.
Just as the CEO of a public company whose revenues have not met expectations must prepare for a quarterly earnings call with investors, or the CSO of a pharmaceutical company whose drug has failed clinical trials must prepare for a Board of Directors meeting, or a product manager whose product missed a shipping date must prepare for a meeting with a customer, political candidates must prepare for the worst case scenario against their opponents and have a strong response at the ready.
Ever since the attack a month earlier, the Benghazi issue was roiling in the media, and was sure to come up in the debate. Each candidate's party was hurling charges and counter charges at the other in public, so each candidate had to have a carefully delineated response and a well-supported argument and to be fully prepared to deliver it under the pressure of a live television debate.
Mr. Romney, in his drive to prove that the president was "misleading," missed an important fact: Mr. Obama in his drive to prepare for the issue, knew the fact cold.
The importance of thorough preparation was put forth in 55 BC by the great Roman orator, Cicero:
Unless the orator calls in the aid of memory to retain the matter and the words with which thought and study have furnished him, all his other merits, however brilliant, we know will lose their effect.