Debate Prep Day One: Keep It Simple, Stupid

Obama’s basically too smart for us, so goes the campaign’s pre-debate spin. Carney: POTUS tendency to explain a “liability.” Psaki: he’s “shortening” answers.

The Obama campaign held a press conference today to sate the media’s appetite about the president’s debate preparation sessions taking place at resort about 40 minutes from downtown Las Vegas, with campaign officials doling out a few morsels of information.

The campaign was vague on details, but did push one main theme: the president is working hard not to come across as overly smart.

“One of the main focuses to make sure he’s sharpening his answers and shortening the time he takes to make them,” campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki said today.

“Liability,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney later added to describe the president’s tendency to explain his ideas in-depth.

It’s a line Team Obama has been subtly pushing for the past month—lowering expectations while preemptively indemnifying the president against accusations from the pundit class that he’ll have sounded too much like the smartest kid in the class. (The knock against Al Gore during the 2000 president debate.)

“[The] shorter format of the debates is not always conducive to somebody who gives comprehensive, substantive answers,” Psaki said on Sept. 17.

“The President is familiar with his own loquaciousness and his tendency to give long, substantive answers…And that is a challenge when you’re in a debate,” Psaki said on Sept. 27.

“He has a tendency to give longer, substantive answers,” Psaki said on Sept. 30.
“It’s just his nature. That’s something clearly we’re working on. And the format of the debate makes that a little bit more difficult.”

As for what actually happened during today’s prep sessions? The presidential activities inside the lake resort are being treated as top secret classified, at least to the traveling press. This has become a running gag among the campaign press corps, who are in the rare and slightly unsettling situation of staying in the same hotel for three days straight. More than one correspondent joked today that the Obama campaign was treating the debate prep sessions as a secret on par with its “nuclear” codes.

The official White House press pool report also noted the lack of actual details about the sessions. “Debate prep: very little on this,” the pool report said. “POTUS is preparing indoors… He sees the debate as opportunity to speak to Americans…. Asked to compare how many hours POTUS has spent preparing given that they’re criticizing Mr. Romney for the amount of time he’s spent preparing, Psaki wouldn’t.”

Psaki herself seemingly joked about the secrecy surrounding the sessions: “We do love transparency as you know,” she said.

Access to the debate prep grounds at the Westin Lake Las Vegas is tightly controlled—the only media at the resort are from the White House travel pool. The remainder of the traveling press listened to the press gaggle over an audio line in a conference room at a hotel on the Vegas strip, not even in the same zip code as the briefers.

The Vegas weather, and the strange anxiety of waiting for some kind of real news, may be taking its toll on the press corps.

As one reporter tweeted, more or less capturing the vibe: “White House press pool just wrapped up a rousing singalong to the Bangles “Eternal Flame.” Desert heat must be getting to us.”

And despite the fact the debate is scheduled to focus on domestic policy, it seems highly likely that moderator Jim Lehrer will also ask about the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and Libya.

The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment about what kind of preparation the president was doing to respond to questions surrounding Libya.

However, the White House noted that he is receiving daily briefings on Libya and is traveling with staff from his National Security Council.

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