observations and opinion
Looking back now on the first debacle, er… debate, perhaps that night the President decided not to fight, but to stay in his corner and avoid mistakes. He may have thought the election was in the bag, or maybe he thought the voters couldn’t possibly listen to Romney’s jibber-jabber, so why refute it? Or who knows, maybe Obama was just having one of his Gandhi moments, taking the blows instead of delivering them.
Gandhi was not in attendance at Hofstra University last evening. Instead, the President practically barked at his starched adversary right out of the gate. If there is a neutral observer left on the planet I think she would have to give almost every round to the President. Obama was crisp, controlled, informed, aggressive and – in my favourite moment – really pissed off and rightly offended, in a polite way. He called out the lies, he spoke some truth, he looked like he gave a damn. It was great.
Not so great for the other guy, though. Mitt didn’t pee himself, but he did manage to create a self-destructive meme (“Binders of Women”) and to suggest, in a rather convoluted way, that if women would just remain married to whoever got them pregnant, stay in the kitchen and polish their husband’s assault rifles, there would be less crime in the street. Not a good night for Mittens with the kittens, if you will forgive the Mad Men lingo. He also fell back into his weird robotic mode, and at times, looked genuinely flustered and insecure. The optics were brutal for him.
So the President is back, no question. Putting aside some scary thoughts (“will he stick around for a while?”) there are life lessons in these debates for all of us, I think:
1. If you’re lucky enough to have coaches, listen to them. Last night President Obama came out hammering on the crucial point of Mitt’s veracity (“untrue, Governor” “not true, Governor” “read the transcript”). These were obviously prepared phrases, fed to the Prez by his team. Barack sometimes doubts that other people are smart, but this time The One was smart enough to follow advice.
2. Check your facts. Romney didn’t, and paid for it by creating the video clip that will be played over and over from this debate (“say it a little louder, Candy!” as the audience spontaneously applauds). Mitt was repeating his “the President didn’t call Libya a terror attack” lie. Obama was dangerously quiet at first, literally luring Romney into getting it wrong (“go on…..” Barack drawled, his eyes narrowing, waiting to pounce). You could tell from Mitt’s stutter that he was suddenly uncertain, stuck in his rehearsed line, spooked by Obama’s seething confidence and not sure what to do. It was a brutal moment for Mitt, because you could see the blood leaving his face and flooding his feet. You could also see him, in real time, thinking about which advisers he wants to fire.
3. Treat other people as if they are intelligent (they often are, and they always appreciate it). In 2007-8, this was Obama’s distinguishing feature: he very often spoke like he was talking to intelligent people, people ready to listen and think. We saw glimmers of this last night, finally, but not from Mitt.
4. But don’t assume other people know what you know. Share. The President recited the laundry list of his achievements in one answer last night, so effectively that it should be edited into a TV commercial. Again, totally canned, yet totally effective.
5. Be a funny bastard sometimes. I will treasure forever, the moment when Obama said (I paraphrase) “why were gas prices so low in 2008? Because we were in an economic crisis caused by policies that Governor Romney will inflict on us again! Elect him and maybe gas will be $ 1.80 again!” That drew real laughter from the generally silent audience. You knew then, Romney was in the toaster.
6. When someone hands you a gift, open it. Obama muffed the easy pay equity question, by repeating yet again the story of his grandmother’s job at the bank. Blah blah, what about my paycheque? It took him a while to realize he could turn this into an abortion rights answer, which scored. Romney made the same mistake, arguably to worse effect, when asked a tee-ball question “What single misperception of you do people have, that you’d like to correct?” Here was the great opening for Mitt to talk about his charitable works, his this, his that, how he lets poor kids ride in his car elevator, whatever. But could he do it? Nope. Instead, he stuck to the robotic “I know how to create jahbs” mantra, and in doing so reinforced perceptions about him. Snore. (Barack did slightly better on this, by refuting the “Obama thinks government has all the answers” line, pretty well).
7 Pace yourself. The President came out fast and hard, but levelled off in the middle to the extent that I was worried he was having another narcoleptic episode. Fortunately, the Libya stuff got him so angry that he woke up in time. He spiked the football in the end, with the 47% thing.
8. Take responsibility. “I’m in charge, they work for me, I’m the only person who takes the blame.” People love this, because it is one of the ways you say to voters “I know you’re smart enough to hold me accountable, but still support me.” It is also personally admirable. As soon as Obama said this about Libya, it turned the whole thing into a positive for him.
9. Only get offended once. There is little in politics or in life that is as tiresome as the Ritual Taking of Offense (“I’m offended! I’m offended!”) People are sick to death of hearing it, because it is whiny and boring and self-involved. But last night, when the President really was offended (by Romney’s suggestion that the Administration didn’t take the Libyan attack seriously), he looked genuinely angry, and the way Obama said it – “that’s offensive” wasn’t just personal, it was in the defense of his team. He was pissed off. Obama’s death ray glare left Mitt like a deer in the headlights. And if you were watching the CNN coverage, the approval-meters went into the stratosphere for Obama at that moment.
By any reasonable measure, a true victory for President Obama, right when he needed it. Don’t believe the blah-blah pundits, they haven’t caught up to reality on this one yet. Watch the polls in Colorado – that’s the acid test of whether this worked or not.
Does all this send Romney into a tailspin? No – voter intentions have hardened to the extent that there is very little room left for change. ( That’s why the “who won?” polls will seem weirdly even, despite a clear TKO by the President. ) Ninety-four percent of the voters have made up their minds, so barring a seismic event the whole thing is really going to come down to 5 people in Cleveland and a couple of widows in Boca Raton, swinging the Electoral College one way or the other.
But Hofstra stalls the Romney momentum, and most importantly, gives the media a new story: there is wind in the sails of the Obama campaign, very close to the finish line! That’s what Obama needed, and if he doesn’t get it, I will eat my Stetson (I don’t own one, so that’s a safe bet for me). Last night also gave voters a Democratic candidate actually worth voting for. After all, if the man is prepared to fight for his own job, maybe he’ll fight for their jobs too.