Something just came into focus for me this morning. You know that I didn't think Obama was that bad in the first debate and that I watched the debate a second time and still didn't think Obama was that bad. I heard something on the radio this morning that hit me as a revelation. It was NPR's Morning Edition, and I can't find the specific quote that jogged my thinking, but someone said the reason Obama made such a bad impression was that looking down and taking notes, he seemed as though he was agreeing with what Romney was saying.
I never thought about it that way, perhaps because, as a lawprof, I'm used to seeing people looking down and taking notes on what I'm saying and it never occurs to me that this behavior signifies that the note-takers agree with me. When I saw Obama looking down and writing, even when he nodded his head and smiled, I thought he was taking account of Romney's points for the purpose of refuting them when it was his turn to speak. I thought his casual attitude expressed confidence that he did in fact have answers to whatever it was Romney was saying.
But I'll assume most people don't read that behavior as I do. They took it to mean Obama was agreeing with Romney. If that's the basis for the opinion that Obama was terrible at the first debate, it would explain the advice worked out for Joe Biden: Whenever Paul Ryan is speaking, remember you are on camera and you need to manifest that you disagree with him. Don't allow yourself to look as though he's making some worthy points and reasonable people might agree with. Don't dutifully wait for your turn to refute those points. Show that you object constantly.
It was a ridiculous display, but I can understand how people who thought hard and tried to be analytical arrived at the notion that it was a good idea.
ADDED: Like me, Obama taught law school classes. Perhaps he shares my interpretation of the meaning of silent note-taking.