Anxious to appear resolute, Obama exercised some executive prerogative and declared rhetorical war on Mitt Romney. No matter what the issue, Obama turned his focused attention to Romney’s past remarks, citing his speeches chapter and verse, labeling his every utterance “wrong and reckless”. When Obama had to suffer Romney’s responses, and one could see the palpable distress carved in his stony face, he replaced his incessant barbs with a long steely glare. When Bob Schieffer asked the two candidates what the greatest threat to national security was, I fully expected Obama to answer: Mitt Romney.
In less sardonic terms, Obama might have overdone his two debate Un-Humiliate Myself Tour. After his fugue state like performance in the first contest, a torpid trance of a showing, Obama wanted to appear strong and commanding. However, he took his cues from Joe Biden and seemed more pedantic than presidential, conflating combative fury with manly toughness. Romney deflated the entire strategy when he responded: “Attacking me is not an agenda”. This made Romney seem presidential and serious while it raised suspicions that Obama’s overflowing aggression was an evasion of the issues, a desperate attempt at misdirection.
When he wasn’t impersonating Bobby Knight, Obama managed to deliver his most impressive showing of the three debates. He was obviously well studied, spoke floridly and confidently, and always seemed knowledgable. He was at his best forcing Romney into several concessions and agreements, taking advantage of the fact that, at least at the level of strategic theory, there isn’t exactly a yawning canyon that separates the two candidates. His most powerful and challenging posture: ”What would you have done differently?”. He sometimes made it seem as if Romney’s only point of disagreement was over tone and tenor, as if the addition of some bluster could transform a lame policy into one that projected national greatness.
Romney obviously made the decision that his principal task was to appear moderate and stately, assuaging fears fanned by Obama’s negative campaigning that he was a rabid war monger, eager to embroil the US in endless conflict and gratuitous brinksmanship. He largely executed this strategy well, carefully training his remarks more on his own plans and principles than Obama’s failings. Obama’s oft repeated charge that Romney had no substantive plan to speak of was consistently contradicted by plans successively offered by Romney, somewhat obsessively delivered in numbered bullet points. He, too, came across as knowledgable and assuringly sane.
Romney was at his best when he focused on the economic underpinnings of any foreign policy, noting that our fiscal health underwrites national security. (I take this as powerful evidence he read my article in yesterday’s edition). In fact, much to Obama’s disadvantage, the debate often got sidetracked into lengthy exchanges over domestic issues like job creation, the national debt, and the possible avenues to renewed commercial vigor. Obama did not do well in these moments, speaking stridently of his future designs as if the last four years of economic enervation never occurred.
The big moment that never was on Libya opened the debate, and both Bob Schiffer and Romney gave Obama a free pass on the scandal that continues to gather steam. Romney seems to have decided that it was better to guard against the potential for any full frontal assault appearing like an opportunistic politicalization of a national tragedy. He let the matter slide entirely, maybe in hopes that it will continue to find legs of its own.
Obama was saddled with the heftiest disadvantage of the night: stubborn reality, tougher than even the best executed speech. Whenever he touted his economic accomplishments, Romney rattled off his now familiar catalogue of American despair. Whenever Obama celebrated our burgeoning influence, the cowed retreat of our enemies, or our historically affectionate relationship with Israel, Romney only had to shrug and gesture towards an uncertain and parlous world that defied his passes at rosy self-aggrandizement.
Bob Schieffer did a laudable job, the best of the three moderators. The clearest evidence for this was that the debate was a pretty boring affair, predictably contentious but generally civil. Wrenched from context, it could be judged a tie, with no conclusive blows delivered by either side. But context matters: while Obama needs to restore his once celebrated mystique, Romney only needed to reinforce his suitability for office, disabusing those who still fear he still plans to spark a nuclear war with Iran and a currency war with China. And mystique is hard to recapture once squandered. Obama’s all too human performance was a forlorn reminder that he is a politician and not a prophet, and that yesterday’s soaring promise of hope is today’s chastened entreaty for patience.
Ivan Kenneally is Editor in Chief of the Daily Witness.