President fights back the day after night before

Fri, Oct 5, 2012, 01:00

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama and his team woke up yesterday confronted by the realisation that he lost his first debate by passively letting Mitt Romney control the conversation. Then the president and his advisers resolved to do what he himself did not the night before.

At a morning rally, Obama seemed more energetic than he had the night before. Clad in khakis and a blue windbreaker, he mocked Romney in a way he had not during Wednesday’s sober performance.

Accusing the Republican candidate of lying to the American people about his plans for the nation, he said: “I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney, but it couldn’t be Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favour the wealthy. The fellow onstage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”

He said the Romney of Wednesday’s debate wanted to put more teachers in classrooms and claimed not to know companies get tax breaks for outsourcing jobs. “The man onstage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year,” the president said. “And that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the last year.”

The vigorous assault on Romney suggested just how worried Obama’s campaign has become. The president’s advisers concluded that he had lost his first debate by not pressing Romney enough. After a series of late-night and early-morning consultations, the Obama team resolved to correct that yesterday with a more aggressive stance, including the rally rhetoric, a new television advert and a conference call questioning Romney’s truthfulness.

David Axelrod, the president’s strategist, called Romney an “artful dodger” whose debate comments were “devoid of honesty”, “rooted in deception”, “untethered to the truth” and “well delivered but fraudulent”.

“Not surprisingly, what we learned is he’ll say anything,” Axelrod said. “That makes him effective in the short term but vulnerable in the long term.”

He added: “He may win the Oscar for his performance last night, but he’s not going to win the presidency.”

The Romney team, feeling rejuvenated, fired back. “In full damage-control mode, President Obama today offered no defence of his record and no vision for the future,” said Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman. “Rather than a plan to fix our economy, President Obama simply offered more false attacks and renewed his call for job-killing tax hikes.”

In trying to turn the tables on Romney, the president’s team was hoping to salvage a debate performance widely criticised by Democrats and Republicans alike. Aides described Obama as out of practice at debating and said he made a conscious decision not to bring up some of the campaign’s favourite attack lines of recent months, a decision that clearly disappointed them. Now they will have to make what Axelrod called “adjustments” in the president’s approach for the next debate on October 16th.

The “take-away from this debate”, he said, was that they “can’t allow someone to stand there and manhandle the truth”.

Campaign officials said they wished Obama had called out Romney on assertions they said were untrue, although they conceded that some of the weaknesses in the president’s performance were simply part of his approach to debates, which is to shy away from highly personal confrontations. The base wants him “to gut Romney”, one adviser said, but swing voters hate that and the president was trying to find a balance.

Even so, Democrats questioned why he did not bring up a range of issues they considered favourable to Obama, including women’s rights; Romney’s taxes; the Republican candidate’s comments about the “47 per cent” of Americans who consider themselves “victims” dependent on the government; and the record of his former firm, Bain Capital. Some Colorado Democrats leaving the debate assailed Romney for misleading viewers about his tax plan and other issues. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning organisation, posted what it called “27 myths” told in 38 minutes.

A new television ad produced by the Obama campaign for seven swing states showed Romney denying aspects of his tax plan.

“If we can’t trust him here, how could we ever trust him here?” the ad asks as a picture of the Oval Office comes on screen.

The Romney camp countered with the various ways they asserted Obama misled about the issues during the debate.

Obama’s advisers went into the debate recognising that incumbents often lose their first debate while seeking re-election in part because they have less time to prepare and in part because it is the first time a challenger is onstage as a peer with a president. They also worried that the media, anxious for a compelling story line, would be primed to write a Romney comeback story.

But what they did not count on was how universally the president would be criticised by Democrats and Republicans alike for his performance. Instead of cementing a sense of inevitability borne out of solid swing-state polls in recent weeks, Obama has now let Romney off the mat and given him momentum. Whether it changes the fundamental dynamics of the campaign remains to be seen.

– (New York Times)