The American Presidential Debates as Managing a Working Relationship

Over the past several months I have been following the American presidential campaign. I follow it because I am interested in politics but also because I am interested in watching how the candidates attempt to convey their messages and how they interact with each other. Watching the candidates, President Obama and Governor Romney, interact is, in many ways, like watching any contentious working relationships but, blown up and magnified by countless degrees.

One of the more interesting interactions to watch is the candidates’ behavior during the presidential debates. The debates are odd venues in themselves because they bear no relation to anything a president actually has to do during his time in office. In addition, instead of being a venue to compare and contrast policy differences so voters can get a better sense of which candidate’s ideas better line up with their own, they have become entirely an exercise in political theater. What matters is not what the candidates say, but instead, how they say it and how they come across to the audience.

Ultimately, one hopes that voters are making their presidential decision based on the ideas and policies each candidate stands behind, but, in terms of “winning” the debate and political points that come with that, the performance matters. In the same vein, one hopes that professional advancement of all kinds will be based on ideas and hard work, but in reality, the performance matters here too.

In watching the debates, it was clear that the candidates and their advisors, in addition to studying up on foreign policy and the ins and outs of each others’ tax plans, also spent time deciding what type of character the candidates should play. Should he be the argumentative agitator or the fact-heavy professor? Should he attempt to be conciliatory or should he come out swinging? Should he respect the rules of the moderator or make his points at all costs?

In addition, even without knowing the questions beforehand the candidates often memorize long passages of hard hitting arguments and have certain points that they want to try to make during the debate. They then need to undertake the dangerous juggling act of simultaneously, preparing their own answers to the moderator’s questions and listening to their opponent for the perfect opening to launch into a prepared attack or “zinger”.

The result of this juggling is that the debates end up bringing us some of the most fake and the most genuine and revealing moments in the campaign. It is not a coincidence that many of the most quotable lines and notable gaffs in this campaign have come from debate performances. Debates are not interesting because we think we’re really going to understand President Obama’s healthcare plan or Governor Romney’s proposals on capital gains taxes by the end of the night. They are interesting because, in attempting to control their image even more than usual, the candidates often reveal the most about themselves.

Have you been following the American presidential election? Do you think it has any parallels with your working relationships?

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