Most people in their now cherished days of naive undergraduate arrogance will have had at least one moment of supreme hubris where they watched a person in a position of importance making their case before the watching world and loudly asserted to anyone prepared to listen that they could do it better. Try to imagine, if you will, the moment when you turned to a friend and said: “If I were in charge I’d…”. Well imagine if, in the moment after you made the statement as to how you would solve the world’s problems, a puff of smoke transported you into the hot seat and by magic you somehow found yourself in the position you regarded just a moment ago as being so easy. Imagine the feeling of horror in your gut as you suddenly realised, amidst of the onset of a precipitous feeling of intolerable anguish through every sinew of your being, that you were in imminent danger of making a fool of yourself in front of millions of people. Imagine the childlike hesitancy and diffidence with which you would utter your first words. Imagine how you would look and sound – as if you wanted the torture to end. Then imagine the look of betrayal on the faces of your supporters as it dawns on them that you have let them down. Then imagine the feeling of shame that would envelope you. At Wednesday’s debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it seemed as if Obama’s place had been taken by just such an imposter – a know-it-all student from a second-rate university wearing an Obama mask – and that the real Obama would run onto the stage at any moment demanding that the imposter vacate his post.
Obama’s performance in the debate was, bluntly, not that of a four year incumbent, but rather, of an undergraduate Smart Alec learning an object lesson in being careful in what he wished for. To Obama skeptics like this author, the performance was no surprise. Obama has had unscripted moments where he has demonstrated crass ignorance in saying that America’s embattled private sector was “doing fine“, of simplistic economic illiteracy (“ATMs cause unemployment“), of a primary school level understanding of geography (referring to the Falkland Islands as the Maldives instead of the Malvinas) and of an unpleasant tendency to insult his opponents (“You’re likeable enough Hillary“). Moreover, his unscripted tomfoolery, in telling people that they “didn’t build” their own businesses even gave his opponents a ready-made campaign slogan.
However, despite all of this, the myth has persisted among his supporters that he is an orator par excellence. There is little in the way of convincing evidence to suggest that he is anything of the kind (see this vicious take-down by the laceratingly brilliant George F. Will). However, to most of the world’s commentariat, Obama’s rhetorical brilliance has become an article of faith, allowing for no intrusion from the stubborn irrelevancies of evidence. The first presidential debate, in Denver Colorado, represents the ghastly moment at which the emperor is revealed to have no clothes. It was truly a sight to behold an emotional and clearly shell-shocked Chris Matthews on MSNBC (who once said that Obama’s speeches made him feel as if something was going up his leg) denounce Obama’s incompetence in the debate.
Having looked at the debate, I don’t think that Obama’s performance was appreciably worse than what he normally delivers without a teleprompter. What was different was twofold:
- Instead of being faced with a fawning interviewer throwing him softball questions, he faced an actual opponent for the first time in four years.
- It had been expected that Romney, who it often seems only opens his mouth in order to insert his foot, would perform disastrously in the debate. Instead, he managed to speak competently and cogently and in a broadly likeable and respectful way and managed to thrash Obama in the rhetorical stakes – although Obama’s toothlessness often made it seem as if Romney had picked a fight with a beak-less, wingless dead baby sparrow.
Romney delivered his plan with a proficiency bordering on panache. He advocated (i) an expansion in America’s indigenous hydrocarbon sector through the removal of federal government roadblocks to the development of oil, coal and tar sands; (ii) a comprehensive reform of the tax code; (iii) improvements in education; (iv) standing up to Chinese currency manipulation; and (v) balancing the federal budget.
Obama, by contrast, stumbled through his plan (including, bizarrely, devoting the beginning of his economy segment to wishing his wife a happy 20th wedding anniversary), going negative from the outset – attacking Republican tax and deregulation policies – and advocating making “investments” in “our future” and making “millionaires and billionaires” pay their “fair share” (read – massive increases in public spending partially funded by increases in marginal tax rates).
Romney delivered a surprisingly self-assured defence and counter-attack, denying Obama’s allegation that he would bring in a US$5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy. He said that he would not bring in a cut which reduced the overall share of the tax burden shouldered by wealthier taxpayers and that he would not sign off on any tax cut that cost $US 5 trillion, saying that he would insist that his cuts be revenue neutral. Interestingly, this now gives Romney some constructive ambiguity in relation to his tax policy. His statement now cleverly allows him to either (a) institute unfunded tax cuts and then claim that supply-side effects will render the cuts self-funding; or (b) abandon all or some or most of his proposed tax cuts if and when Washington’s pork barrel politics make it impossible for him to eliminate a sufficient number of loopholes and deductions to make the cuts revenue-neutral. An opponent with a rudimentary grasp of economics would have latched onto this issue and forced Romney to define his terms with respect to his tax policy. However, Obama, whose understanding of economics seems to extend no further than the constant repetition of Keynesian cliches, could only come out with repetitions of his $5 trillion allegation against Romney without in any way addressing his detailed rebuttal of this attack.
Obama repeatedly delivered the same talking points (“millionaires and billionaires” should pay “their fair share”, “investing” in the “future”, putting money into the hands of the “middle class”) over and over again in a way that clearly ignored everything Romney was saying, suggesting that his command of the issues was so poor that he couldn’t understand Romney’s arguments and could only deliver pre-cooked comments rote-learned before the debate.
Both candidates were let off the hook by the consensus of ineptitude around spending. Obama repeated a series of tired Keynesian bromides about pump-priming consumer spending as a means of stimulating the economy. Romney, meanwhile, demonstrated that for all of his mastery of detail, his understanding of the fundamentals of America’s problems and the world’s is no better than Obama’s, when he dusted off Jack Kemp’s tired old dictum about growing out of the monstrous US Federal deficit rather than actually cutting spending. This part of the debate was particularly depressing, coming on the same day that influential bond fund manager Bill Gross issued a dire warning about impending fiscal Armageddon.
In a debate devoted to the economy, there was no meaningful effort to debate the role of the Federal Reserve in this crisis – one truly pined for the presence of Ron Paul on the stage. With the exception of some brief and superficial references by Obama, neither candidate gave any indication of any intention to cut spending on the US’s bloated military.
All in all, while the debate was probably a game-changer insofar as it gets Romney back into the race, it still offered a calamitous paucity of debate in relation the ticking time-bomb of America’s trillion Dollar plus deficit addiction and underlines how in times of grave distress, a watching world is receiving nothing in the way of real leadership.