To what extent is the public listening to Obama?

It’s a commonplace that when a challenger debates an incumbent president, the challenger gains in stature if he hangs in there effectively with the president. Mitt Romney certainly met that standard last night. If this had been the first debate, the story would be that, regardless of who had the better of it on this or that point, Romney gained by hanging in there with Obama.

But of course, Romney had already trounced the president in the first debate. Thus, Romney didn’t gain by just hanging in there last night. If anything, it’s possible that Obama gained slightly by keeping up with Romney.

There’s another dynamic, though, that may operate in at least some debates involving an incumbent. After four years, the public has heard the president speak often. Its reaction to his words tends to be fixed. That reaction may be positive, neutral, or negative, but it’s unlikely to change even if the president, on the umpteenth occasion that we hear him, speaks well. And if the fixed reaction is south of neutral, that’s trouble for the president. Just ask Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush.

It has been a long time since Obama moved public opinion with a speech. He failed to move it on Obamacare and he failed to move it during the 2010 elections. He may have moved it slightly during the convention in Charlotte, but most observers credit Obama’s bounce mainly to the speech of Bill Clinton (a president the public likes, but doesn’t hear much from these days). Even the speeches of Michelle Obama and Joe Biden seemed to play better than Obama’s, despite the fact that the president’s oration was, I thought, quite good.

Last night, we saw both candidates debate well, though not endearingly. But Romney is the fresh face (comparatively) and Obama is the guy whose words, I believe, the public has been discounting for some time. In this scenario, the advantage would go to Romney.

It may be that the public’s willingness to take Obama’s words seriously varies from topic to topic. For example, when Obama pitches his economic policies and alleged successes of the past four years, I suspect he might as well be talking to a brick wall. When he talks about Mitt Romney, the public may be more tuned in, although it has heard most of these attacks in countless ads for months. Obama was effective in hammering the former governor. Thus, last evening wasn’t a wasted occasion for the president.

But I suspect that Romney may have gotten more out of the debate because he remains an object of considerable interest (he’s the guy folks are seriously considering as Obama’s replacement) and because he debated well and appeared presidential for the most part.

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