President Obama, and President Who?

By Victor Rangel-Ribeiro

The United States presidential debates this year have taken on the appearance of a heavyweight boxing title fight, with this one major difference: the fights will last a total of three rounds only, and weeks—not minutes—will separate one round and the next.

Round One began and ended on Wednesday, October 3. Tens of millions of viewers sat with eyes glued to their TV sets when President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney strode on to the stage in Denver. Obama fans felt sure the President would win; many Romney fans had doubts about their candidate, but hoped for the best. In the preceding days both parties had played a peculiar political game, with each party lowering expectations for its own candidate, while praising the ability of the opponent; thus, Democrats claimed that Obama was facing a seasoned debater in Romney, and Romney backers claimed that their man would have a tough time debating someone as skilled as Obama.

It turned out that the Democrats were right: Mitt Romney turned out to be by far the better debater of the two. And he also presented by far the better image. Does this matter? It matters because Mitt Romney was trailing only slightly in the polls for very specific reasons: he was viewed as aloof, and in the debate he came across as caring; he was portrayed as being unlikeable, and he came across as charming; he was depicted as a heartless person who closed factories and slashed jobs, and he spoke with compassion about the unemployed. Erasing the negatives could put Mr Romney ahead.

Unfortunately, it was President Obama who seemed cold and disinterested and almost bored at times. At the end of the evening the consensus of most viewers was that Mitt Romney had won the debate handily.

But the debate itself was farcical. The New York Times proclaimed in an editorial on Thursday morning that the debate had "quickly sunk into an unenlightening recitation of tired talking points and mendacity…" And the editorial was particularly harsh in its assessment of Mr Romney’s role: "The Mitt Romney who appeared on the stage at the University of Denver seemed to be fleeing from the one who won the Republican nomination on a hard-right platform of tax cuts, budget slashing and indifference to the suffering of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. And Mr Obama’s competitive edge from 2008 clearly dulled, as he missed repeated opportunities to challenge Mr Romney on his falsehoods and turnabouts."

That was the strangest part of it: that several of us who were watching the debate that night would call out when Romney spoke, "That’s a lie!" Or, "Not true!" But the president up there on stage said nothing. At times, he seemed like a man in a trance; much of the time when Romney spoke, Obama would have his head bent, scribbling notes on a pad instead of maintaining eye contact.

All of today the pundits have been kept busy analyzing the reasons for Obama’s non-performance. Former Vice President Gore came up with a fanciful explanation: he suggested that since President Obama had arrived in Denver just seven hours before the hour set for the debate, he had had trouble adjusting to the high altitude (Denver is five thousand feet above sea level). Others blamed the team that had prepared the president, saying they had advised him to be "presidential" in his demeanour, rather than confrontational or challenging. Besides, one professor said, Obama as a black man had to be particularly careful in his choice of words, because things that a white man could say with impunity could be interpreted as being offensive or arrogant if they came from his mouth!

In his campaign speeches President Obama constantly challenged Mr Romney to come up with specifics instead of spouting generalities, but he issued no such challenges on Wednesday. That left Mr Romney free to look at the camera and tell the nation, time and again, that he "had a plan"—a plan to create jobs; a plan to reduce the deficit; a plan to close tax loopholes; a plan to deal with Social Security; a plan to reform health care reform. All this sounds very impressive, but when he is asked, for example, what specific tax loopholes he will close in order to bring in more revenue, he avoids giving a direct answer.

Mr Romney’s plans might therefore be described as a riddle hidden in a mystery wrapped in an enigma, or better still, as a riddle hidden in a mystery wrapped in an enigma buried in an onion; for no matter how many layers you peel away, or how many tears you shed, the onion will not yield up the enigma, the enigma will not unwrap the mystery, and the mystery will not reveal the riddle at the core.

So it is entirely possible that, this coming November, the good people of the United States will elect a President Romney instead of re-electing a President Obama. Should the good people of India care? They should, because Mr Romney’s economic policies as well as his foreign policy tilt will most certainly affect India’s future. If he insists on a policy of not taxing the rich, the gap between rich and poor in the USA will reach alarming proportions; if, as a result, the American economy collapses, think what that will do to India’s own economy, to India’s 1.2 billion people. Mr Romney has also advocated a more aggressive foreign policy; he proposes getting tough with Iran and also with China, and he wants to build up America’s military strength, because he believes that a strong America will frighten potential enemies and ensure peace.

Mr Romney’s world view ignores the lesson of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: an army is most effective when fighting another army, but even mighty armies can run into trouble when faced with invisible guerrillas, homemade mines, and improvised explosive devices.