Thoughts on the Final Debate

The final presidential debate of 2012 saw President Obama and Governor Romney met in a duel that was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but in which both men were content to return the emphasis onto domestic affairs. The debate was expected to favour Obama, with its emphasis on international affairs, and following his underwhelming performance in the first debate, the president has found himself having to make up a great deal of lost ground in an attempt to reverse a trend that has seen support ebb away in favour of his Republican rival.

Having been president for the past four years, Obama was clearly far more experienced in foreign policy heading into the debate and his tactic was to stress his credentials in this areas, to highlight Mitt Romney’s inexperience, and, if possible, suggest that his Republican challenger was little more than a warmonger, too eager to plunge the United States into costly and unnecessary foreign interventions.

The debate opened promisingly, with a direct, if rambling question on Libya and the security failings that led to the death of the US ambassador. Not without reason the president was on the defensive throughout the first third of the debate, as the attention remained focused upon a litany of topics that questioned his leadership over the past four years.

In such circumstances it is possible to discern the president’s ill-concealed ire at being so challenged. He would not be the first president to live in a bubble of Yes-Men, ill prepared to speak truth to power. Unlike most presidents, however, Obama doesn’t have the life experience to conceal his frustration when his opinion is brought into question. Rather than stress the challenges, promote the successes, and seek to present a coherent policy with which to address the coming years, Obama instead sought to demean his opponent and singularly failed to present a strategy for a second term. Governor Romney was forced to remind the president that personal attacks were no substitute for a plan of action.

The president, as expected, drew early and repeated distinctions between his four years of experience in dealing with foreign policy and Governor Romney’s lack of international dealings. There was nothing subtle about this approach and it was one in a series of touches that somehow made Obama appear small, defensive, and petty. He did not necessarily need to stress the fact that he had been president, presumably most viewers realised this. One of the most remarked upon moments came when the President rebuked Romney for lamenting the current size of the US navy, which he claimed was at its most sparse since World War One. The President launched a cutting and facetious attack, reminding the Governor that things had changed since 1918 and that no one used horses and bayonets anymore. Except, of course, that they do. The US has engaged in horseback riding in Afghanistan and only this summer a British soldier was honoured for his bravery in leading a bayonet charge against the Taliban forces.

And then, bizarrely for a debate intended to focus on foreign policy, conversation switched to domestic affairs, as the President sought to drag the focus away from issues such as Benghazi and the whole ‘maybe we are, maybe we aren’t’ negotiating with Iran debacle. In the midst of a foreign policy debate, Obama managed to introduce a discussion about the importance of teachers, causing the moderator to note, “I think we can all agree we love teachers.” No doubt a few union votes were shored up in this exchange.

A particularly telling moment arose when the President intoned that in his first term, too much time had been spent ‘nation building’ in other countries and not enough at home, something he planned to alter in a second term. This suggestion of a pivot to a domestic agenda in a second term is reminiscent of George H. W. Bush’s failed tactic in 1992. American presidents have traditionally gone on to be more, not less, internationalist in a second term as they seek to establish a legacy as a statesman. Obama’s suggestion, therefore, appears to replicate Bush snr.’s failed approach and runs counter to expectation and precedent.

Surprises on the night included the lack of real attention to events in Libya, on which Romney really should have skewered the president, and on the suggestion in the New York Times that the administration has been engaged in secret talks with Iran on nuclear weapons. That the president was able to get away with a simple denial of this story was remarkable, as it implies that either a) the New York Times made up a story, b) an administration official lied to the paper to plant a story 36 hours before the final presidential debate, or c) the White House is lying about a true story.

If Libya and Iran got away relatively lightly, the same cannot be said for China. The President again got in a few low blows about the Governor’s investments and apparent preference for outsourcing, but both were harsh on the rising world power. Obama quickly pivoted to address China in a question that sought to consider the gravest threat to US national security, whilst Romney insisted that the United States was already engaged in a secret trade war with China.

Over the course of 90 minutes the conversation turned heated, comical, and robust. It was never anything other than fascinating. Both men sought to portray themselves as being capable of leading the United States for the next four years. But neither man was without flaws. Obama had a weak start and was stronger once he could pivot conversation to the domestic linkages. Romney was not as strong on specifics and numbers (a failing of most challengers) but exuded confidence and, vitally, appeared the president’s equal in many regards, passing ‘the commander in chief,’ test. In their closing remarks both men addressed the American people directly. Obama appeared earnest, but his habit of waging his finger in the face of voters may not have gone down well.

Romney expressed his optimism and excitement about the years ahead. He has clearly been studying Ronald Reagan’s performances and is seeking to tap into the natural confidence that the Gipper expressed over thirty years ago. Vitally, he specifically asked Americans for their vote. Such details may be seen as lacking in importance, but in an election that appears increasingly likely to be decided by a few hundred thousand votes in Ohio, they could prove pivotal. Early polling appeared to give Obama an edge, but Romney was still standing at the end of the night as the president’s equal and clearly eager to take his argument to the country in the 13 days that remain until Election Day.

Obama’s Nuclear Game Changer

This evening’s breaking news, that the Obama Administration has been involved in secret negotiations with the Iranians over the possibility of face to face talks promises to be a vital event in the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election, coming so close to the final presidential debate, scheduled for Monday night.

The possibility of a fabled ‘October Surprise’ has loomed large ever since the president’s numbers began to tank following his poor first debate performance. Many of us have speculated privately and in public as to what form this may take. A mysterious countdown clock has recently appeared on the Internet promising a mysterious revelation.
Now, however, it has been revealed by the New York Times.

That indeed, should tell us something. The paper is hardly a friend to Republican candidates, and as one of the most reputable international newspapers, the story was guaranteed to make a splash heading into the Sunday news shows.

The news threatens to impact both the US election and the election in Israel, since Netanyahu will doubtless be unhappy with the concept of negotiations with a nation that has discussed removing Israel from the face of the Earth.

Of more immediate concern is the impact that this could have on the US presidential election. With Election Day drawing closer and Romney surging in the polls (including in Ohio) the release of this story must be suspect and raises once again the issue of national security leaks from the Obama White House.

How Romney chooses to react will be telling, and react he must, for the final debate focuses on foreign policy. According to the New York Times story, the Iranians have reservations about Romney. Could the Republicans suggest that it is fear of a GOP victory that has inspired this move? This is doubtless incorrect, but may be spun this way.

More likely, this is yet another move by Tehran to divide opinion and sew the seeds of doubt into potential adversaries. Put another way, Lucy has once more placed the ball in front of Charlie Brown. We know what happens next…

The move has dramatically raised the stakes, however, ensuring the Monday’s debate could be the most pivotal ever held since the live televised coverage began in 1960.

Presidential Leadership: Consistency Required

True leadership involves assuming responsibility in bad times as well as in good. As President Kennedy noted in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, widely seen as being a ‘perfect failure’ in US foreign policy, “success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Despite the abject failure of the initiative he had inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy refused to allow anyone else assume to responsibility, telling the American public that he was categorically responsible for the failings.

Kennedy’s performance should be required for all aspiring politicians. Having made an error of judgement his timely public statement on the issue and refusal to blame others for his errors won him the support of the American electorate and his approval ratings actually increased. (“It’s like Eisenhower,” he quipped, “the worse I do the more popular I am!”

Not all American presidents are so smart. Despite his public adulation for the late president, Bill Clinton appeared not to have learnt this vital lesson when his Attorney General, Janet Reno, assumed public responsibility for the Waco fiasco. In a cabinet dominated by men, it was America’s first female Attorney General who appeared the most courageous by assuming responsibility. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s dithering on the issues appeared timid at best, and did little to inspire confidence in his leadership early in his presidency.

Some twenty years later, another Clinton finds themselves at the centre of a similar storm. For several days, speculation has mounted that President Obama was seeking to allocate blame for the Benghazi tragedy firmly at the door of the State Department. The Internet has been awash with observations as to how Hillary Clinton would react to being thrown ‘under the bus.’ The popularly held belief was that she wouldn’t stand for it. However, in the hours leading up to the second presidential election, Hillary took one for the team and declared that she was responsible.

This is an admirable, though shortsighted effort on her behalf. It demonstrates a very admirable ability to assume responsibility and be seen as a team player, which of course, many have questioned in her determination and drive to become the first female president. However, it may backfire in ways that could damage both her own presidential ambitions as well as those of her boss, Barack Obama.

By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her. More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be covering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief.

The move actually increased the pressure on the president going into this week’s debate. If he had responded to Romney’s attacks on the Benghazi tragedy by blaming Hillary, he would have appeared weak. However, when asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya, Obama’s answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question. Instead, he asserted his responsibility, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, “she works for me, I’m the president and I’m always responsible.” In doing so President Obama merely continued the process of sending mixed signals and further muddy the water’s of responsibility on the issue.

The president needs to take a look at the lessons from the Bay of Pigs and assert unambiguous leadership, not leave questions of responsibility to be pondered in time of national tragedy.

Can Romney Win? It’s Debatable…

A little over a week ago President Obama appeared to be cruising towards re-election without a care in the world. Victory in the debate and the election seemed a formality. Now that has all changed. Uncertainty is everywhere and the race is well and truly back on. A poor performance for Romney last week would have been enough to seal the deal for an Obama victory. Instead, the president is on the ropes and Romney is surging. It may still be too late, but Obama has given himself an un-necessarily difficult final three weeks of the campaign.

With less than a month until Election Day, Mitt Romney had the debate of his life on precisely the same night that the president simply failed to show up. In fact, it may have been better for him if he actually hadn’t shown up at all. Instead he took to the stage, in what Al Gore reminds us is the thin, icy atmosphere of Denver, and gave a lacklustre performance that must have had Hillary Clinton wondering why he could not have been so bad 4 years ago.

The campaign to besmirch Governor Romney’s clear victory has made the Obama team look all the more desperate. Desperation may turn to despair when they finish analysing the latest data from the Pew Centre that gives Romney a clear lead. Even discounting national polling and focusing on the 5-6 key swing states, Romney has picked up dramatically. This may be part of what could be called a ‘dead cat bounce’ but I’m not so sure. The debates appeared to allow the American people what some on the right feel was their first, untainted view of Romney, removed from the spin associated with TV coverage. I think there is more to it, and that blaming the liberal bias (which is undoubtedly true) is a little too easy and actually diminishes what a great performance Romney turned in last week.

Before we begin to throw soil on Obama’s political corpse, however, let us not forget that Ronald Reagan had a poor first debate in his bid for re-election in 1984. He tuned that perception around with one great line in his second debate and never looked back. It has historically been the case that the first debate attracts most viewers. Put another way, millions who watched the debate last week will have decided on the basis of that performance who to vote for and won’t be tuning on to see if the president can perform miracles in the next two events. It is open to debate as to how many Americans will be willing to give this president a second chance, or whether he can pull off a Reagan-esque retort. His record on off-the-cuff remarks is not good. Indeed, if the debate last week revealed anything, it is the president’s dependence on the mighty auto-cue. 12 years ago Al Gore was forced to consider his demeanour, having been too hot in the first debate and too cold in the second. It cost him dearly. The same may well now be true for Barack Obama.

In a single evening, Mitt Romney has busted this race wide open. Now he needs to keep the pedal down and ruthlessly exploit his performance by once again taking the battle to Obama on foreign policy. Where once this would have been a potentially insurmountable problem, now, opportunity beckons to portray a stark contrast between a potential Romney presidency and what would occur under a second term Obama Administration. Romney began that process during a speech on foreign affairs in Virginia this week. With the upcoming debate he has the opportunity and the motive to continue his drive to chip away at Obama’s credibility on this key policy area.

Last week’s debate was focused on domestic affairs and as such it is possible that it will be Romney’s high point. From here on in, the debates could prove more difficult as the forum changes to a more relaxed style and the focus shifts to foreign affairs. Yet even in this case, perceived wisdom could be about to get turned on its head.

Until several weeks ago an argument emerged that unusually the Democrats were running as the party of national security (with Obama claiming responsibility for killing bin Laden) and the Republicans were running on a financially responsible ticket (having nominated Paul Ryan, along with his calls for fiscal responsibility).

However, having been demolished on domestic affairs, events are now even conspiring to shred Obama’s claim of foreign policy prowess. The facts emerging from Benghazi portray a disengaged president, asleep at the wheel as his ambassador perished and America’s consulate burned. All of the possible plaudits that Obama earned in the strike that killed bin Laden may well become nullified by the events in Libya. The House Oversight Committee hearings into the security failings in Benghazi are the last thing the president wants to deal with in the dying days of this campaign and could prove catastrophic to his claims of foreign policy credibility.

Last week Romney dominated the stage and brought his argument down to a series of succinct points. This apparently, is the true Mitt Romney style. He must do the same in the next debate on foreign policy and present a strong and credible alternative based on solid foreign and domestic polices if he is to prevail in November.

JDB Podcast for The All New Commentator

I’ve said it before, and I daresay that I shall say it again, but one of the great joys of this year has been the developing relationship I have established with the great team at The Commentator. In addition to the weekly column on US related affairs I have been making a contribution to their podcast series, “We Need To Talk…”

Ably anchored by the always-erudite, increasingly dapper (although you can’t tell just by listening) Raheem J. Kassam, these broadcasts are great fun to record and I hope that this is conveyed in the finished version.

I sat down with Raheem and Christian J. May on Friday evening to address a range of issues, including this week’s presidential debates and I invite you to sit back, relax, kick out the cat and listen to what we had to say:


Round One to Mitt..

Earlier this week I wrote for the Commentator, “In the coming days the world will witness whether Mitt Romney has what it takes to take on a sitting president and emerge unscathed. If he can do so, and land a punch or two, his odds for victory in November will improve considerably and motivate his legions of supporters. If he proves unable to do so, then it will finally be time for the obligatory Plump Female to begin her low, mournful torch song lamenting Romney’s beleaguered campaign.”

Well, the Fat Lady has been forced to postpone her outburst, at least for now.

After weeks of anticipation the 2012 presidential debate season began in earnest last night at the University of Denver. With both sides having sought to lower expectations to such a degree that an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time would be sufficient to declare one pleased with the result, the gloves finally came off as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney finally met on stage. It is an oft- forgotten fact that the two men at the centre of the election will only meet three times during the entire election process.

As the debate focused on domestic policy it was perhaps Mitt Romney’s best opportunity to take the fight to the incumbent. With unemployment standing stubbornly at around 8% and the national debt upwards of $16 trillion this was always going to be the one debate during which Obama may have been on the defensive. That being the case, however, few could have expected to what degree this would be the case. Not usually one to be seen as lacking in confidence, Obama appeared to be in something of a daze last night, as though he couldn’t decide which Obama to be.

Ahead in the polls and enjoying a post-convention bounce, Obama really just needed to keep calm and servive. Fundamentally he didn’t need to debate Mitt Romney. However, having been derided for his dependence on an autocue, the president’s inherent flaws were on display in front of an audience of millions. Alternating between a professorial approach that sought to lecture the American people, and an altogether more contrite and subdued performance, the impression was of a candidate uncertain of his place. One minute he was hectoring the anchor, (who, it must be said, did a poor job of moderating the event) the next he appeared servile and demure in the gaze of his opponent. He failed to raise flaws in the Romney manifesto, the issue of Romney’s apparent dismissal of 47% of the electorate or to rebut allegations made on stage. In short, the president was badly off his game.

For there can be no doubt that this was Mitt Romney’s night. Following an initial concern regarding the haltering tone of voice, Romney quickly found his stride, his tone and his message. This was an excellent performance that deliberately took the fight to the incumbent and made a valiant effort to reclaim the middle ground of American politics, where this election will be decided. Romney changed the dynamic of the race by throwing caution to the wind and chosing to take the battle to the president. He dominated the stage and the debate. By directly challenging Obama on the economy, on jobs, and on healthcare he left the president nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide.

This was not the Mitt Romney of the primary season that appeared on stage last night. This was the Mitt Romney that was Governor of Massachusetts, the Mitt Romney that introduced what became an early model for Obamacare. Conservative Republicans may not like this, but the Democratic leadership should fear it. If Romney can continue to stress the moderate message and bi-partisan track record of achievement, he may yet begin to chip away at the independent voters who will decide this election.

Debates usually favour the challenger and this has proven to be the case once again, but will Romney actually benefit? Races traditionally tighten in the last few weeks, a period we are now entering. It may be too late in the process to secure a Romney victory, especially as anything up to a third of all votes have already been cast. However, his efforts will enhance the pressure on the Obama team and increase the likelihood of mistakes. If the polls start to narrow in the coming days then Romney can take great credit for a commanding performance in Denver. This could position him well for the debate on foreign affairs, a topic the president is so eager to pivot to that he introduced it in his closing remarks.

Indeed, the closing remarks of the candidates were revealing in their own right. Obama, master of the autocue, forget to address the audience at home until the last seconds of his remarks, having focused his response directly to the moderator. As a result, he appeared distracted, unfocused and befuddled. Romney, in contrast, directed his remarks straight down the camera lens to the millions of voters whom he badly needed to connect with. He gave a direct and forthright statement and of the two candidates, was the only one to thank the voters for bothering to tune in.

It may all be too little, too late for Romney, but he appears determined to go down swinging. The odds and the polling still favour the incumbent. But as the American Ryder Cup team found out at this weekend, it ain’t over, until it’s over, and right now, this race is far from over. Indeed, last night’s debate may have blown it wide open for the first time!

The Joy of Debating (Presidential Style)

One of the joys in covering American presidential elections is the uniformity that belies the potential for chaos; there is a rigidity to the events and a fanatical attention to detail to ensure (on the surface at least) that nothing can go wrong, that events occur like clockwork and that ‘democracy’ can be celebrated from sea to shining sea.

Then the candidates get involved and it all gets far more interesting….

A classic example of this is the quadrennial holding of the great debates. Every four years   TV producers pull out stock footage of Kennedy and Nixon and hold the latest candidates up to this historical high-point in an attempt to offer ‘analysis’ and ‘insight.’ The debates form the dramatic highpoint of the election as the candidates appear together for the only time during the electoral process and seek to outdo one another.

Historically the debates have recorded astronomical viewing figures. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these 50 million viewers are switching on to learn anything new. These debates are not traditionally a forum for freethinking, or for wide-ranging answers or even interaction between the candidates. They have historically been a forum for the delivery of stock answers to what are often sycophantic questions. So why the high viewing figures? For the same reason that millions tune in to watch NASCAR or Grand Prix races, part of the reason is in the hope of witnessing carnage; a truly awful moment that will define the election and which people can claim to have witnessed live.

Such incidents have occurred before, but are generally rare and becoming rarer. As politicians have become more professional and less personal, they have generally performed ‘better,’ stayed ‘on message,’ and not fallen foul of dangerous ‘off the cuff’ remark making. Which has, of course, made the debates far less interesting.

Even when the odds look stacked in favour of a disaster, frantic preparation caused disappointment to the millions who tuned in to witness the expected car wreck of Sarah Palin’s 2008 debate with Joe Biden. Despite expectations, the general consensus was that she more than held her own, came across as engaging and, dare I say it, looked great in the camera cut away shot from the back of the stage…

In the fifty-two years since the televised debates began, there have been some remarkable turning points: The visual dynamism of JFK, Gerald Ford’s insistence that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Mondale’s admission that he would raise taxes, Lloyd Bentsen’s withering put down to Dan Quayle and Clinton’s extraordinary use of the set to demonstrate his empathy with the audience.

Debates, therefore, are about far more than content. They are about conveying a feeling and a style that either attracts or repels voters. Gore’s condescension towards Bush in 2000 was palpable and reinforced the impression that Bush would be a far better drinking partner (although whether this is really the basis for electing a president is another matter).

The debates in this election cycle will be fascinating to observe. Irrespective of one’s own view of the candidates, both Obama and Romney are professional politicians. They are not leaving anything to chance and have both been practicing for months. Neither will really debate one another. Instead they will have stock answers, ready to be wheeled out in response to predictable questions. The degree to which the candidates can inject personality into what have been rather staid events,  will be revealing, for it will likely be on this topic that un-decideds will finally make their selection.