Four years in Oval Office and never been dissed: Obama's wake-up call


ANALYSIS:Obama may have won on substance, but Romney beat him on tone

IT WILL take several days for the damage to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign to be fully assessed. But as praise continued to pour in yesterday for Mitt Romney’s surprisingly good performance in Thursday night’s presidential debate, one question came up over and over. In the words of a caller to C-Span radio’s morning talk show: where was President Obama?

Within moments of the debate starting, it became obvious that the incumbent was not in top form.

The split television screen showed Romney smiling as he watched Obama intently. Only once, at the end of an hour and a half, when Romney made his closing remarks, did Obama even look at him.

For most of the debate, Obama looked in the opposite direction, as if absent, sometimes nodding incongruously or grinning at someone in the audience while Romney berated his performance in office.

The most oft-heard explanation was that for nearly four years in the Oval Office, no one has dared to challenge Obama.

The president often refers to the “bubble” that surrounds him; Romney burst it. Even Bill Maher, the liberal comedian who donated $1 million to a pro-Obama “super-pac”, joked: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Obama looks like he does need a teleprompter.”

Obama may have been the victim of incumbent syndrome. At least four times in recent decades, presidents have botched their first debate against a challenger.

In 2004, the Democratic senator John Kerry – who prepared Obama for his dismal debate – obliterated George W Bush in their first contest. Bush nonetheless went on to win re-election.

Another theory is that Obama, whom Republicans often portray as an arrogant elitist, had been coached to hide his contempt for Romney. He looked angry during the debate, as if he were thinking: Why do I have to go through this nonsense? How dare this man say such things?

Whatever the reason, Obama was not in a fighting mood. He was defensive and never mentioned the topics hammered home in advertisements that gave him a lead in the swing states: Romney’s disdain for the 47 per cent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax; his refusal to release more than two years of tax records; alleged “vulture capitalism” at Bain, the private equity firm Romney founded.

That lifetime of clean Mormon living appeared to pay off for Romney on Thursday night. The vivacious, concentrated and competitive 64-year-old chipped away at the tired, 51-year-old president.

Sixty-seven per cent of respondents in a post-debate CNN/ORC poll said Romney won the debate; only 25 per cent said Obama did.

Obama struggled to convince viewers that the economy is improving.

“Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,” Romney said, exploiting vice-president

Joe Biden’s latest gaffe.

“They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300 . . . gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electricity rates are up. Food prices are up . . . ”

One of Romney’s most vicious attacks focused on the Affordable Care Act: “I just don’t know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table and spent his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people.”

There was an answer, but Obama didn’t say it: that it’s immoral to leave 50 million people without healthcare in the world’s richest country; that the private healthcare system Romney is so enamoured of is the most expensive and one of the least efficient in the world, costing $2.6 trillion annually.

Four times Romney denied Obama’s accusation that he wants to spend $5 trillion on tax cuts, though that’s the mathematical conclusion of his promise to cut income tax by 20 per cent.

“Look, I got five boys,” Romney said. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it . . . That is not the case, all right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.

I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families.”

Obama wants to stop corporate tax exemptions for US companies who keep their profits overseas. “You said you get a deduction for getting a plant overseas,” Romney said in one put-down.

“Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Obama didn’t call him on it.

Romney used humour, joking about his “romantic” rendezvous with Obama on the president’s 20th wedding anniversary, warning the moderator he would have to stop the subsidy for public broadcasting because although “I love Big Bird. I actually like you too”, and he refused “to borrow money from China to pay for it”.

Obama may have won on substance, but Romney defeated him in style and tone. It was “unbalanced” for Romney to refuse even $1 of taxes for $10 in spending cuts, Obama said.

Romney countered: “I’m not going to raise taxes on anyone because when the economy’s growing slow like this, when we’re in recession, you shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone . . . the revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes.”

Obama made a legitimate point that Romney’s plan to “voucherise” Medicare would “put seniors at the mercy of those insurance companies”.

But Romney carried the argument again, asserting that “my experience is the private sector typically is able to provide a better product at lower cost”.

While Obama repeated tired lines from his stump speech, Romney invented a whole new compassionate and moderate persona for himself. He carried out the “etch-a-sketch” transition from rabid right-winger in the primaries to reasonable guy in the final sprint of the election so seamlessly that voters might not even notice.

Who could have imagined that the hitherto wooden, plodding Romney would turn out to be such a skilled prestidigitator, morphing his policies into a defence of the middle class so similar to Obama’s as to be unassailable?

At one point, Obama lashed out in frustration at the dearth of detail in Romney’s plans. It was, Romney insisted, a sign of his willingness to work with the opposition.

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