Obama Eludes 'Angry Black Man' Debate Trap

Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — One thing on which everyone seems to agree is that President Obama had a much better performance Tuesday in the second 2012 presidential debate than he did in the first one. Something else on which nearly everyone seems to agree: That's not saying very much, because the president's first performance was so disastrous that it set the bar pretty low for the rematch. Noted political analyst David Gergen of CNN had speculated that if President Obama had performed this strongly in the first debate, his campaign would be in a much stronger position than it currently is.


What made the difference between the president's performance tonight and his lackluster performance in the first debate? I previously suggested five things I believed the president needed to do between the first debate and the second if he wanted a chance to save his campaign. While I stand by that list, I now realize I missed something important. I said the president needs to "get comfortable attacking." What I should have written is that the president needs to "get comfortable attacking without fear of being labeled the 'angry black man.' "

There have been a number of articles written about whether or not the stereotype of the "angry black man" presented a land mine for President Obama, both politically and psychologically. The short answer is, of course it does. How could it not? But the longer answer is more complicated.

President Obama had every reason to fear the "angry black man" stereotype, not just because he is a black man but because he is Barack Obama. What I mean by that is that there have essentially been two things that have kept the Obama campaign afloat this election season: the support of women, particularly black women, and the president's likability numbers. Polls have consistently shown throughout the president's first term that even as his job approval numbers have ebbed and flowed, the number of Americans who like him as a person have remained high. Various polls have showed that as many as eight in 10 Americans like the president — including many of those who do not approve of his handling of the economy.

In what was supposed to be an off-the-record phone call months ago, Republican operatives specifically expressed concern about candidates attacking the president personally for this very reason. You don't want to be seen as beating up on a nice guy. This is why so many of Romney's — and others' — attacks included language like, "The president's a nice guy, but [insert criticism of the job he's doing]."

The president's likability numbers not only gave Republican operatives cause for concern but also had to have given the Obama campaign cause for concern, too. People very rarely find those who attack others or pick fights as "likable." Therefore, this put the president and his campaign in a bind. Should they risk gambling away what has so far been one of his greatest assets: his likability? Or should they risk being perceived as weak and not fighting back? Well, after seeing the damage the first debate did to the Obama campaign, it looks like they made the calculation that there was more to be lost if he didn't fight back — and aggressively — than would be gained by attempting to protect his persona as "Mr. Likable" at all costs.

In his very first response in Tuesday's debate, the president skipped trying to be Mr. Likable. He didn't thank the hosts, the moderator or Mitt Romney or give a shoutout to his wife. He simply answered the question and immediately attacked his opponent for saying, "We should let Detroit go bankrupt." He used the same approach in response after response, and for the most part it worked. He didn't look confrontational or even angry — most of the time. And when he did look and sound angry, such as when he strongly rebuked Romney's characterization of his administration's handling of the diplomatic tragedy in Libya, he managed to do so while sounding presidential.


To be clear, the evening was not a slam dunk for the president. Based on how badly his poll numbers slipped after the last debate, he has so much ground to make up that it will take more than one solid performance to dig his campaign out of the hole in which it now appears to be. But this was certainly a start. Finding his voice as a fighter and getting over his apparent fear of being perceived as "angry" was an important first step. Equally important was that he seemed to get comfortable finding ways to make his opponent angry.

After Romney's aggressive performance, which included speaking over moderator Candy Crowley and ordering the president to sit down and answer questions, it's possible a new stereotype might gain steam in American media and politics this election cycle: "the angry white man."


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter