October 16th, 2012
02:20 PM ET

Letters to the President #1366: 'Tonight's debate: The female factor'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and Mitt Romney are preparing for tonight’s debate, the second in this presidential election. I am preparing today’s letter to the president, the 1366th in this series.

Dear Mr. President,

If the political prognosticators are correct, in all likelihood you will introduce the idea of women into tonight’s town hall meeting. Presumably that’s because you want to point out what your administration has done for them, why they should be grateful, and why they should accordingly vote for you. Fair enough. The polls say you’ve been outrunning Romney on that front, and cementing the support of female voters is not a bad idea.

Here is a caution, however: Make sure you know what they like about you.

Oh sure, you probably have a pretty good instinct for what dedicated Democratic women like. They are fully on board with you when it comes to classic liberal or Democratic issues, not the least of which is all this latest debate over abortion rights.

But what about the middle women; the independents, the moderates, and the apolitical? Do you really know why they are (or are not) in your camp?

This is a critical question because it could dramatically shape your ability to appeal to them tonight. If, for example, you go on the attack against your Republican opponent, only to find out that it fights your image as a compassionate, caring person, then you may find the very women you are reaching out to, turning away. If, on the other hand, you play everything too soft, and women see you as being weak in support of their causes then you could also suffer.

With at least some indication that Romney’s standing with women rose after the first debate, you also have to ask yourself, “Why?” Was it simply that he appeared more caring and likeable than before? Was it that you seemed disengaged? Or did the substance of his arguments cut through to female voters in a new way?

I suspect you and your staff have answers to most of these questions, even if those answers are imperfect. But I would make one last suggestion, the same one I would give to Mr. Romney as he seeks to court the female vote: Watch their reactions in the crowd, listen to what they say, and make sure that you treat them with the respect, intelligence, and politeness they deserve. I think women, who spend much of their lives dealing with men and male expectations and male biases, can sniff out a politician who is trying to patronize them in an instant. It clatters against their political sensibilities like a guy walking up in a bar with a canned compliment and the offer of a drink. And I’m pretty sure they don’t like it.

So explain what you’ve done in a straightforward manner, and ask for their votes, but be careful about lecturing them on your record or your opponent’s. Because they already know the truth, and they may resent anything that smacks of manipulation.

I suppose you are too busy to call today, but once the big hoo-ha is over, give a call if you have a minute.


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