President Obama has a number of "poker tells" which he displays when answering questions. They betray an increasing distance between his reply and the truth.
Talk show hosts love when the president gives one of his very rare press conference or any other occasion when he is off prompter. That is when these "tells" surface, giving all veteran Obama observers the verbal heads-up that the president has entered the land of thinly disguised fantasy or obvious dissembling.
First, the president begins a pattern of "ahs" and "uhmms" which are as embarrassing as they are revealing. The awkward pausing punctuated by these semi-stutters increases in frequency as the president senses his own flailing about.
Next, the president begins filibustering. His average length of answer in every press conference is already epic, but he has been getting worse as the presidency has dragged on. Pressers are not battles between the "reporters" and the president. Very few not named Jake or Ed bother the president with fastballs. The struggle is simply between the president and the effort he has to land the plane anywhere near where it took off, so far does he wander as he rambles through the minutes he is obliged to spend appearing to take questions.
The president will allegedly be subject to time limits on Wednesday night, but his contempt for most such rules almost guarantees he will blow through every limit and dare the moderator or Mitt Romney to challenge him.
If either does, we will be treated to "tell No. 4," the president's feigned outrage that anyone would interrupt or question him. When this happens, his countenance displays a disapproving sneer and his voice clouds with displeasure. It is practiced. It is also profoundly anti-democratic and arrogant, and if he plays this card on this stage, it will backfire.
Watch as well for nonresponsive self-pity, verbal essays on how difficult it was when he took over and how hard he has been working. Self-pity and self-regard are not designed to endear him to the unemployed or even the economically fragile, so he will be coached to try to avoid displaying his sense of outrage at being thought a failure or "in over his head," but the president's sense of his own immensity is so great as to blow past such base political calculations.
Finally, watch for the parade of straw men, the president's favorite rhetorical trick. He will set up arguments that have never been made in the service of Republican goals that have never existed, and then he will denounce both. If the appearance of a straw man serves as a trigger in a drinking game, many bottles will empty by the end of Debate No. 1.
So the president enters the debate a prohibitive favorite to clobber Mitt Romney. But if Benghazi or the unemployment rate surfaces, if the president's failure to remedy joblessness, spark a serious recovery, or in any way pose an obstacle to Iran's nuclear ambitions are brought up in the course of Wednesday night's first big debate, then watch for these verbal ticks and know that Romney is scoring.
Examiner Columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com.