Not his lucky day
President Barack Obama fluffed his first debate with Mitt Romney. But that hardly constitutes a sea change in US politics, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
Having described President Obama as "lucky" in this space about two weeks ago, I owe the readers an apology. I spoke too soon, having expected Obama to "crush" Romney in their first debate. My prediction, as it turned out, was based on the skills and experience of the two men rather than the changes that have occurred in US politics over the past few years.
Since Obama took office four years ago he hasn't had an easy time. His personal qualities have been questioned as well as his leadership skills. And yet he had a few things going for him. For one thing the economy is finally improving. And he hasn't lost his knack as a public speaker, which in a debate can be a great advantage.
It was my assumption that Obama's oratorical skills would be as sharp in this campaign as they were a few years back. What I didn't expect was that his opponent had honed up his communicative skills and was more than a match for the incumbent president.
The debate between Obama and Romney followed its usual course, with the two men trading facts and figures over the economy. During Obama's term in office the economy has pulled back from the abyss, which is good news for the incumbent. But unemployment remained a tough nut to crack. At 8.1 per cent the unemployment rate is terrible news for any president hoping to stay on for a second term. Nor were rises in energy prices helpful to Obama's case.
Up to the debate polls showed Obama to be ahead of his rival, both nationwide and in critical states, the ones in which victory is essential to win the presidency. With youth, experience, and charisma on his side, Obama shouldn't have had trouble in the debate. But he did.
As I settled in front of the television at a friend's house in Princeton the networks were marching in the usual parade of pundits to opine on the candidates' chances. Announcers cited polling figures, and frequent footage of earlier debates was run for good measure.
The whole thing was familiar to me. I have been watching these debates since 1980, when Ronald Reagan looked into the audience and asked the rhetorical question which many say put paid to Jimmy Carter's chances: "Are you now better off than you were four years ago?"
On the screen, one analyst after another said that the conditions of the country boosted Romney's chances, while Obama had the advantage of experience and eloquence.
Then the debate started and to everybody's surprise Romney seemed to be the one in command. He used the economic arguments in his favour, challenged his opponent, and generally looked more confident and communicative, looking Obama in the eye and speaking with ease. Obama, meanwhile, groped for words, looked into his notes, failed to make eye contact, and his confident body language for once betrayed him.
In these debates the moderators are usually strict with time, but on this occasion they were a bit lax. Romney spoke four minutes less than Obama, which didn't seem to harm him at all.
Romney kept it simple and to the point. He repeatedly challenged Obama, questioning the reliability of his information and casting doubt on his reasoning. Romney was also skilful with catchy words, didn't seem to be hung up on the past, and came across as forward looking and optimistic. He spoke of growth, of more jobs for everyone, of an economy that is running at full speed and generating enough revenue to reduce the deficit.
Obama had more than one chance to rebuff Romney, to point out the flaws in his logic, but he was too flustered to make a cogent argument, too irritable to project the image of confidence he once cultivated.
It appears to me that while Romney worked hard on his communication skills, Obama took his for granted. He must have known that Romney had a lot of ammunition to use, for Michel Obama hinted in a television appearance that the debate was going to be tough, but he failed to come prepared, or relaxed, to the debate.
Hardly had the debate ended that the networks began not only declaring Romney the winner but predicting a sea change in US politics.
Is this true? Is it time to write Obama off? I would caution against those who are composing Obama's political epitaph. There are still two presidential debates to be held, and one vice presidential one. These debates can turn things around, as they have in the past.
Obama hasn't run out of ammunition either. He can hit Romney where it hurts, expose the fallacy of his economic predictions, argue that his policies are going to increase joblessness and suffering, question the wisdom of increasing military expenditure etc.
The next few weeks will give Obama's team a chance to regroup and regain the initiative. Also, with Romney ahead, he is likely to be just as vulnerable to media criticism as his rival has been so far. This too can change the dynamic of the battle for America's hearts and minds.