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The young African-American stepped forward as if to make a solemn political statement. And he did pop one that took his audience by surprise. He and his six friends (all African-Americans, ages ranging from 13 to 30) had just held their New York subway audience spellbound with a stunning exhibition of break-dancing.
As they wound up, one of them walked around, not with the usual hat or tin to collect small cash, but with a big bucket. The message, quite rightly, was that they deserved to be well compensated for their show of extraordinary skill.
Then the spokesman said his piece, deadpan: “And remember folks, Obama wants change.” Pause. “We want dollars. Obama can keep the change.” As brilliant a line as you could hope for. The White folks in the enthralled audience seemed embarrassed, unsure whether it was politically correct to giggle. The young African-Americans in the audience, however, cracked up in raucous laughter. The irony, the pun, the promise of Mr. Obama and the parody of his performance — all of it seemed to hit home at the same time. Mr. Obama’s “Yes, we can” and “We need change” slogans had swiftly become the fodder of ad jingles and shows by stand-up comics.
That was a year before the presidential campaign debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on October 3 took the parody further. The President’s most skilled drum-beaters in the media could not find a generous word on his performance. However, it wasn’t just that Mr. Obama did badly in the ‘debate’ — he did. Or that Mr. Romney fared better — he did. Nor does it mean that this election is over with this debate. It isn’t. What sticks out is how pathetic this debate format is. And how poorly Mr. Obama has delivered on the — modest — promises he made four years ago.
It’s a huge problem when you shill for the same corporate constituency your opponent does — only you can’t be as clear cut as he can be about it. When you have not punished but rewarded the Wall Street mob that tanked the economy in 2008. When Mr. Obama allows his adversary to get away with some of the worst statements ever made by a U.S. presidential candidate. Till last week, it looked as if Mitt Romney was shoring up the Obama campaign, so crazy were his mistakes. Take his comment that 47 per cent of Americans paid no income tax, saw themselves as victims and “so my job is not to worry about those people.”
That should have sunk him. That it didn’t is also a measure of how much credibility Mr. Obama has lost in the past four years.
As he enters the final lap of his re-election bid, the jobless numbers are daunting, and the unemployment rate is above 8 per cent. No President seeking re-election since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had to contend with such figures. Most of the jobs that have been created in the past several years are low-wage and low-skill ones. About half of the over 12 million jobless workers collect few or no unemployment benefits at all. And some 40 per cent of those out of work have been seeking it for six months or more. Millions more who want full-time jobs can’t find them.
The latest data from the U.S. Census on income and poverty (out just three weeks ago) are not joyous. Real media household income “declined between 2010 and 2011,” says the Census report. This is “a second consecutive annual decline.”
Yet, as economist Paul Buccheit points out in Nation of Change: “Based on IRS figures, the richest 1% nearly tripled its share of America’s after-tax income from 1980-2006. That’s an extra trillion dollars a year. Then, in the first year after the 2008 recession, they took 93 per cent of all the new income.” Corporate profits doubled in less than 10 years. As Buccheit writes: “Corporations pay even less than low-wage American workers. On their 2011 profits of $1.97 trillion, corporations paid $181 billion in federal income taxes (9%) and $40 billion in state income taxes (2%), for total income tax burden of 11%. The poorest 20 per cent of American citizens pay 17.4% in federal, state and local taxes.”
Yet, the word “inequality” did not come up in the Obama-Romney debate. Neither in terms of a question from ‘moderator’ Jim Lehrer. Nor in the exchanges between the two. Mr. Obama even stressed that he and Mr. Romney had “similar positions on social security” which needed “tweaking.” He felt they both agreed the corporate tax rate was too high and needed to be lowered. (Though he wanted the better off to give a little bit more for society’s well-being).
Having agreed the corporate tax rate was too high, both candidates traded clichés on how to protect, nourish and serve the middle class. Neither mentioned that 160 million Americans could see their tax bills soar after January 1. That’s when the temporary payroll tax holiday expires. The hikes that it will bring, says The New York Times, “would be about $95 billion in 2013 alone.” That change, it quotes experts as saying, could cost the economy a million jobs.
This ‘debate’ did not extend much to foreign policy (that will come up in another debate). It only touched in passing the two wars that America has fought in the past decade. One in Iraq launched on lies by the Bush administration and which saw that country’s overall mortality rate more than double. (From 5.5 deaths per 1,000 persons before the war began to 13.3 per 1,000 persons by late 2006). The other in Afghanistan — which Mr. Obama portrayed as a good war in 2008, as against the bad one in Iraq. His “surge” has failed. This is already America’s longest war. And the sheer misery of Afghanistan’s people is beyond description. No one knows exactly how many civilians have died. The two wars have cost trillions of dollars. No points in the debate, though, on the human and financial costs of the wars.
U.S. presidential election debates, no matter how many millions may watch them, are now a farce. They are more tightly choreographed than a ballet. Pre-scripting by arrangement is the norm. Well before the event, the camps of the two candidates even negotiate which and how many of their family members will join their stars on stage. After the non-debates, the pundits will debate for days on who “looked more presidential.” On who had the better lines, the quicker response. And who missed which opportunity to score a point. But there’s worse.
In a piece on counterpunch.org on “Rigging the Presidential Debates,” consumer rights crusader Ralph Nader shows how the debates are set up. Mr. Nader scoffs at a “supine media” that does not seek even basic facts from the candidates. Such as those on “the secret debate contract negotiated by the Obama and Romney campaigns that controls the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the campaigns’ corporate offspring.”
In the 2004 George Bush-John Kerry debates, both parties agreed in advance not to seek any further debates. They also agreed to shut out other candidates. And not to “accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format.” As Mr. Nader (himself once a presidential candidate) puts it: “Were this deal to be between two corporations, they could be prosecuted for criminal violation of the antitrust laws.” One unwritten agreement in all such debates, it appears, is to keep off corporate crime. Not a whisper on the guilty of 2008 this time. The one vaguely-related mention of it being from Mr. Obama in terms of “reckless behaviour” — to which he quickly added “not just on Wall Street.”
Yet, these ‘debates’ will be minutely post-mortemed by the media for days to come. The Oracles of the airwaves will study the entrails of Wednesday night’s engagement and their blah and the opinion polls will feed into each other. In fact, the post-debate coverage could do more to stir up the voters than the ‘debate’ itself. The Romney camp, cheered by their man’s ‘win’, will crow about it. Which makes the likelihood of another giant gaffe from him even greater. The Obama crew will soon launch an offensive, seizing on what it feels were damaging positions that Mr. Romney took. E.g.: “I won’t put in a tax cut that will add to the deficit. I will not reduce the share paid by high income individuals.” (When will they hold him to it — after the elections?)
The scripted debates are not over. Nor is the race. There’s a lot yet to rise on the blah barometer.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.