President Obama was was painful to watch at the debate on Wednesday night.
Time after time, he allowed Mitt Romney to make fraudulent statements or empty statements without slapping the Republican presidential candidate down.
When Romney talked about the allegedly great job he did in Massachusetts on education or on healthcare, Obama needed only to say, “That begs the question, governor, of why you’re polling about 31% in your home state.”
When Romney said he was running because Americans “are hurting,” as he did several times through the event, oozing fake compassion, Obama had only to say, “What are you talking about? You told your contributors that 47% of Americans are ‘victims’ whom you don’t care about and who ‘don’t take responsibility’ for themselves. That’s caring?”
Actually, there were myriad occasions Obama could have chosen to introduce the point about Romney’s admission, on tape, to a group of wealthy donors, about how he felt that 47% of the country were victims who didn’t take responsibility for themselves. Obama never even mentioned that number, though it has been part of his standard stump speech since Mother Jones magazine released the secretly recorded videotape.
When Romney lied, several times, claiming that he never said he would cut $5 trillion from the tax roles, Obama should have engaged in a little simple math for the audience, pointing out that Romney had said he’d cut taxes by 20% over 10 years, that the budget over those 10 years is projected to be $25 trillion, and that 20% of $25 trillion is one-fifth of $5 trillion. He could have tossed in a dig saying, “Governor, if you’re going to engage in budget cutting, you should at least be capable of fourth-grade math.”
Nor did he pounce when Romney said he “had experience” with shifting jobs overseas and that the president was “wrong” to say companies could get tax breaks for doing that. There was a chance right there to crush Romney with the governor having no way to respond. Many journalists have documented how Romney grew rich by advising companies on how to escape their taxes and by having a company that shift jobs abroad and reap the tax breaks that come with doing so. (Just one: taxes on profits paid to foreign countries are deductible one-to-one from US corporate taxes owed.)
Obama is not a stupid guy. That he never did said any of these things is certainly not because he forgot to. Clearly his campaign braintrust, such as it is, decided not to go there.
What we we witnessed at the first debate was the result of a cold calculation by Obama and his campaign that the president has lined up all the votes he is going to win from Democratic and progressive voters, and that he needs now, particularly in a few swing states, to try to capture more of the so-called undecided vote — a group supposedly composed of very ill-informed and ignorant people who make their decisions based not upon facts, but upon some bizarre combination of looks, demeanor, facial expressions and “likeability.”
There was clearly also a calculation that the president should not come across as combative, but as a nice, friendly, thoughtful guy.
I think this was a disastrous misreading of who the undecided voters really are. Certainly there are some who are undecided between Obama and Romney, which while hard to imagine, is nonetheless a category of voter who actually exists. But there are also many undecided who are wondering, not which candidate to vote for but whether to vote at all, or whether to vote for a major party candidate or a third party candidate.
By handling this debate the way he did, Obama threw away any chance of reeling in any of those two categories of undecideds.
By failing to forcefully defended Social Security, instead of volunteering up front that he and Romney “agreed” on what needed to be done to “shore up” (siic) the program, by refusing to go beyond condemning Romney’s announced plan to increase military spending and assert that he wants to cut the military (something he said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention) and why (polls show a majority of Americans wants to cut the military budget by close to one-fifth), by refusing to blame Republicans in Congress for thwarting any kind of serious action on the economy and recalling House Speaker John Boehner’s statement at the start of his term that “number one goal” was not passing legislation but was “making sure that Obama is not re-elected,” and by ignoring numerous other opportunities in Wednesday’s debate where he could have scored populist points easily, Obama showed that he really did not want to come across as progressive or even as a fighter.
And that’s the real problem with this president. He is decidedly not a progressive. He is simply a less politically savvy Bill Clinton: a conservative Democrat, particularly on economic issues, who has allowed himself to become captive of the corporate interests who have funded his campaign, and who really do not particularly care whether he wins or Romney wins.
It could be that the Obama campaign has done enough research that it feels it can win at this point by playing it cautious, and by avoiding looking confrontational. If so, it will be bad news for the country after he wins. He will not have long coattails. He will probably still face a Republican House, and perhaps even a Republican Senate, or at least one in which Republicans are even stronger than they have been in the current Senate. The only way Democrats would be able to make major gains in Congress would be for the president to be campaigning aggressively for voters to give him a Democratic Congress, and he doesn’t even talk about that as a goal out on the stump.
That of course means that if he wins, we end up with the worst of all possible worlds — a divided government in which the president, a Democrat, not only has to, but wants to compromise with an increasingly reactionary and thoroughly Darwinian Republican majority. A demoralized and leaderless Democratic majority would be unable to summon up any of the kind of stonewalling resistance as a minority party in the Senate that Republicans have managed to develop as the minority over the last four years.
It also means that even in the unlikely event that Democrats managed to wrest narrow control of the House, and to narrowly hang on to control of the Senate, there will be no mandate for progressive change, for strong defense of the remaining critical elements of the New Deal and Great Society — Social Security and Medicare — or any important issues.
But let’s be clear: This is obviously what the Obama campaign has decided to do. Not that they wanted to lose, but given the position they wanted to take, this was not a “poor showing” by Obama. It was a tactic.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.