The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney proved a very simple fact about human nature. Most people will reveal their truest, most fundamental self when in the midst of a stressful situation. Both the president and his challenger did just that.
Mitt Romney is an ambitious businessman but not a very good politician. The so-called gaffes and misstatements that have characterized his campaign result from his lack of political acumen but aren’t an indication of lack of intelligence or capability. Romney’s greatest success in life was his tenure as CEO of the Bain Capital hedge fund, which is not the best experience to have when campaigning for voters whose lives have been ruined by the actions of corporate America.
Romney famously said that he liked to fire people. After all, what CEO doesn‘t? During the debate he told the moderator, Jim Lehrer, that if president, he would fire him and all of his colleagues at public broadcasting. He then made it clear that he planned to fire Barack Obama too. The aggressive Romney crammed for the test and found a sureness and confidence by behaving as the CEO in charge of the presidential campaign.
Unlike Romney, Obama is a very good politician. He excels at garnering support from voters by telling them what they want to hear while simultaneously doing things those same people wouldn’t want him to do. The public and pundits alike were surprised that the president’s performance veered between being lackadaisical and flat-footed or strangely discordant with boring anecdotes about his grandparents which didn‘t even answer the questions being asked. The president momentarily forgot the source of his popularity. He has spent so much time agreeing with Republicans in private that he forgot he was in public with more than 60 million viewers who were under the naive impression that the two parties are very different.
Obama is the king of trying to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. He calls this process consensus, but in stark political terms it is nothing but capitulation. Obama cannot even muster support for Democratic low-hanging fruit like Social Security. When the moderator asked the president if he saw a difference with his opponent on Social Security he happily replied, “You know, I suspect that on Social Security we’ve got a somewhat similar position.” Those words may have been shocking but they were true. It is Obama who appointed a deficit reduction commission which called for cuts to entitlement programs. Only intransigence from Republicans prevented him from further double dealing with the people he is supposed to be working against.
The president floundered uncharacteristically because he forgot that his audience wasn’t made up of the Republicans he is so anxious to please, but voters who dared to think they were going to hear why he should remain in the Oval Office instead of Romney. As the Democrats have moved ever more to the right and become more dependent upon corporate largesse, Obama and other Democrats have gone along with their program even as they pretend to be an opposition. Obama was caught unprepared and unable to state plainly how he differs from his opponent, mostly because he doesn’t differ very much.
It was Romney who took the supposedly populist, progressive Obama to task for bailing out the banks, calling it the “biggest kiss to New York banks I’ve ever seen.” As with other Romney rejoinders the president was silenced, furiously scribbling notes as he tried to compose himself.
Unfortunately, most Democrats still refuse to admit what happened right before their eyes. While criticizing the president’s debate performance they were not willing to admit that the Obama who stood on stage is the real Obama. Stripped of a script he was laid bare before the world, an empty suit devoid of any conviction except the desire to stay in office.
The debate allowed the previously bumbling Romney to suddenly look capable and gave many people new reason to give him serious consideration. Obama needed only to look presidential in order to live up to expectations but is now facing a serious challenge because he isn’t as slick as he thought.
It is unlikely that Barack Obama will allow himself to be bested more than once. No one with a small ego becomes president of the United States. But the question isn’t really whether or not he will turn in a better performance. Instead it is whether Democrats will believe their eyes and ears and accept that the real Barack Obama is in fact the man they saw on stage.