Obama and the words he never said

Obama should have went on the offensive rather than let Romney steal the show.

Denver Presidential Debate
"Obama kept referring to himself and Romney as if they were in the same class," says Schechter [EPA]

Heartened by two early polls that showed the President ahead, the Obama camp was caught up in a miasma of overconfidence for weeks, convinced that Romney was a boob. Many supporters had convinced themselves that the race was over apparently, and unbelievably unaware of how these races always tighten in the final weeks.

Polls tend to go up and down, and are always influenced by what the media is reporting.

As long as there was disarray in Republican circles, and quotations by the candidate that seemed clumsy or all-revealing of his class biases, the Democrats had persuaded themselves that he was a goner.

What a difference one “debate” could make, even if was really a Q&A conducted by a former TV anchor oriented towards policy wonks and hostile to all political passion.

Jim Lehrer set the format and the tone, and President Obama stupidly played into it. He wanted to show what the differences are between the candidates in terms of their stances on dry issues like the details of their competing economic policies, deficits and taxes, the kind of emotion-free politics that PBS specialises in (a close colleague of mine worked for Lehrer on what was jokingly called the “Snooze Hour” – their in-house slogan was “not afraid to be boring”).

That is the very antithesis of what the Obama campaign needs when faced with widespread voter suppression schemes and an impending onslaught of hundreds of millions of dollars in TV advertising attacking him. 

He needs to energise his base and make a case for why Democrats must vote, and why he must be returned to office as a matter of national urgency.

That was not a message he even tried to communicate.

It’s no wonder that the satirist Andy Borowitz caught the zeitgeist by reporting: “Millions of Americans lost consciousness on Wednesday night between the hours of 9 and 10:30 PM EST, according to widespread anecdotal reports from coast to coast.”

That response wasn’t surprising since most reports referred it this verbal wrestling match as a “sparring contest”, even a seminar or university colloquium.

While Romney pounded away with shibboleths and distortions of his actual position, Obama stood by, defensive, detached, professorially looking down, taking notes and smiling inappropriately. His own sense of self-importance and the need to remain “presidential” neutered him.

At one point he said his first priority is the “safety of the American people”, something he thinks about every day.

What about their economic security, which is the real issue on the table? In this carefully prepared-for TV spectacle, it seemed that the Republican challenger – a corporate exec and venture capital multi-millionaire – was more concerned about the jobless than a Democratic president who kept talking about the “middle class” but not working families and the poor.

In fact, Obama kept referring to himself and Romney as if they were in the same class. The President has a long way to go to make as much money, another sign of his own deluded consciousness. They discussed how to make programmes more efficient, not competing values. Romney had the chutzpah of critcising government programmes on the grounds of their morality.

What we saw was a politician who had literally co-opted himself into playing a conservative role in a familiar political ritual. Once criticised for not wearing an American flag in his label, he – like Romney – wore one almost as if it is now part of a patriotically correct suit. He was so intimidated by criticism that he tried to be in the fray and stay above it at the same time.

Worse than that was his refusal to even echo the contentions of his own campaign. The critics focused on the “facts” as if that really mattered in an event that was ultimately all about perception and showmanship

By accepting a debate on topics defined by the moderator, most of the political issues were lost, like Romney’s super wealth and shady offshore accounts, his role at Bain Capital in exporting jobs, his attitude towards people dependent on government programmes, the so-called 47 per cent. He certainly avoided the inequality divide – the 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent – raised by Occupy Wall Street. His own criticism of Wall Street was mild and did not deal with his refusal to go after banker crime.

In response to Obama’s embarrassing loss of the first debate, his faithful adviser David Axelrod said they would have to rethink their approach, likening it to a sports match. “It’s like a playoff in sports,” Axelrod said to reporters on a conference call, adding that there are strategic judgments “that have to be made and we’ll make them”.

This is the sad part: His handlers see all this as a matter of debate strategy, and style not substance. Contrast Axelrod’s insights with this one from economist Paul Krugman: “OK, so Obama did a terrible job in the debate, and Romney did well. But in the end, this isn’t or shouldn’t be about theatre criticism, it should be about substance.”


News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His most recent books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a radio show on ProgresiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents