They say that words account for only 7% of the message you convey. The remaining 93% is non-verbal, being transmitted through the tone of your voice and your body language. I wonder what would have happened if yesterday, during the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his GOP rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney I put my TV on mute and reacted only to “non-verbal” messages emanating from the debaters. I must say that my conclusion would be different from the one expressed by the majority of pundits and the media: Romney has not won the debate.
True, President Obama looked absent, bored and tired – exactly like a man who has something more important to do than debating a guy who over the past 6 years has made himself a professional presidential candidate. Yet Romney, with a pleading expression on his face and elevated shoulders betraying pressure, came out as a kid desperately trying to persuade his suspicious parents that he had done his home work and can now go to play. If this, according to some analysts, means looking “presidential,” then someone has to explain me what the job of U.S. president is all about.
Naturally, I didn’t mute my TV, so in addition to the body language messages of the debaters, I could also hear the tone of their voice. And if the sound of Obama’s could certainly put me to sleep, I would have been prevented from dozing off by the nuisance of Romney’s pitched, word-compressed mini-monologues begging: “Listen to me…listen to me…listen to me.”
And then, of course, there were words. I’m someone who’s interested in politics and comfortable with relevant economic numbers. I can understand (and remember on November 6) Obama’s assertion – whether correct or false – that in addition to existing $2 trillion tax cut, Romney wants to impose another one worth of $5 trillion. Bad for him. But I had troubles to follow Romney’s non-ending arithmetic exercises, like telling us for how long we could run Medicare for the money Obama wants to invest in clean energy. Sounded to me like how many oranges you can buy for the money you won’t spend on apples. Well, perhaps folks voting for Romney have a better grasp of math then me. Who knows.
No, I won’t insist that Obama has won the debate – or even that he did well. Yet I doubt that the lack of sleep, energy or motivation – or his reported hatred of debates in general – can account for his lackluster performance. I suspect he was simply stunned – I was – by the easy with which Romney has suddenly abandoned his conservative credentials and was positioning himself as someone who could do better what Obama has been already doing: perfecting the health-care law, polishing Dodd-Frank and tightening “smart” government regulations. It’s not easy to debate a “better” yourself, is it?
During his political career, Obama has debated many people of different political shapes, shades and stripes. But this is perhaps for the first time that he met such an ideologically omnivorous opponent like Romney, a man who hardly remembers – his passion for numbers notwithstanding – how many times he invented and reinvented and then re-reinvented himself. It’s tough to hit a moving ideological target. Yet Obama has no other choice. Voters have lousy memory and on November 6, they won’t remember Romney’s multiple reincarnations. They may enter voting booth with only one vague recollection of what Romney once said: more jobs. This might be enough to make Obama a one-time president.
Unless, of course he and his advisers believe that the voters react to only 7% of Romney’s political message.