“Get the transcript”: Obama Continues to be President
Before last night’s debate even began, I noticed several of my friends and family optimistically invoking every liberal’s favorite presidential debate: President Bartlett’s evisceration of his Republican challenger in Season 4 of The West Wing. “Game on!” was a prevalent Facebook and Gchat status. As the debate began and it became clear that we would be treated to a much more aggressive President Obama, my thought was that the president appeared to have “juice” in his tie. But as the debate continued, it was a line from a different episode of The West Wing that kept coming to mind. In the episode “Hartsfield Landing,” while exhorting the president not to dumb down his re-election campaign, adviser Toby Ziegler tells President Bartlett, “You’re the president, you don’t have to act like it.” That line underscores the key difference between the candidates in last night’s debate.
Barack Obama was the president. Mitt Romney was trying to act like it.
Never was this more clear than during what should be remembered as the defining moment of the debate: the candidates’ confrontation over the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Benghazi is a no-win issue for the Obama campaign. It’s an event with no silver lining to point to, and one where, somewhere along the line, there was an obvious failure of intelligence and information. So, President Obama did the only thing a president can do in such a situation: he took responsibility. “I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home.” Later in the exchange, he looked Romney square in the eye and said:
[quote]And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.[/quote]
Romney responded by trying to score a point, believing he had caught the president in a lie when President Obama claimed to have called the Benghazi attack “an act of terror” the day after the attack. President Obama sat calmly and goaded Romney further out onto the limb—“Please proceed, Governor” —before responding simply with, “Get the transcript.” Moderator Candy Crowley—operating under the insane notion that members of the media have a responsibility to present the truth to the public—stepped in to point out that President Obama had in fact called the Benghazi attack an act of terror the day after the attack. Romney seemed rattled the remainder of the debate. My guess is he was distracted by thinking about how badly he wanted to fire whoever had coached him on the timeline of President Obama’s Libya remarks.
As President Obama has maintained a slight lead through most of the campaign, the recurring theme has been that many voters are disappointed in Obama’s presidency and with how the last four years have gone, but recognize that he faced enormous challenges upon taking office and believe he has done well enough to earn a second term. Americans recognize that the presidency is a difficult job and that the last four years have presented especially difficult challenges. President Obama, I would imagine, came off well in the eyes of those voters last night: he was engaged with the challenges facing America, gave a forceful defense of his administration and its accomplishments, made clear that he takes full responsibility when his administration comes up short, and showed that he is prepared to continue facing those challenges in the next four years.
Romney, on the other hand, showed no acknowledgment of the difficulty and enormity of the office he seeks. There was no nuance, no shades of grey: President Obama has been an abject failure, and Mitt Romney will solve all of our problems. Not because of any policies he’s set forth, but simply because he’s Mitt Romney, CEO. Don’t worry that his tax plan is mathematically impossible and that his campaign still refuses to detail exactly what deductions he will close to make it work. Mitt Romney will not increase the deficit or raise taxes on the middle class because Mitt Romney has run a business and therefore you can trust him when he says he will not increase the deficit or raise taxes on the middle class. Immigration reform stalled in a gridlocked Congress? Mitt Romney will fix that! Americans need jobs? Don’t worry that Romney’s job plan is hokum; Mitt Romney has “spent [his] life in the private sector” and knows “why jobs come and why they go.”
[pullquote_left]Romney talked over moderator Candy Crowley, attempting to enforce his own rules.[/pullquote_left]
Granted, this is largely just the nature of political campaigns. Part of the reason President Obama is in trouble is because of the scope of the promises he himself made in 2008, and Romney’s most effective moment in last night’s debate was when he listed off the campaign promises President Obama has failed to deliver on. But President Obama’s 2008 campaign was of a very different character than Romney’s campaign: in addition to having specific policies he was offering, Candidate Obama recognized the enormity of the challenges facing America but believed the American people were capable of meeting those challenges. Certainly, he saw himself as the galvanizing force, but it was still to be a common effort. Romney has replaced, “Yes, we can,” with “Don’t worry, I will, because I am Mitt Romney.”
Romney’s arrogance and entitlement was apparent not just in the substance of his answers but in his comportment as well. He talked over moderator Candy Crowley, attempting to enforce his own rules and always insisting on having the last word. He showed similar contempt for the president, badgering him to answer questions about energy permits and his pension, and at one point snapping, “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.” After the first debate, I wrote: “When Romney isn’t challenged strongly, he comes off more polished, less awkward than people except. Obama has to try to get under his skin, make the ‘I’m the CEO, how dare you question me?’ [Romney come out].” Last night, that’s exactly what happened.
Writing about Romney’s 47% comments, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce perfectly boiled down the essence of Mitt Romney:
[quote]To this moment, I guarantee you, Romney is probably astonished at what all the fuss is about. This is simply the way the world is. There is himself, Willard Romney, and his perfect family, and his perfect life, and there is The Help, and The Help gets drunk on the job, and prunes the shrubbery badly, and pockets the silverware, and makes off with the odd can of salmon out of the pantry. He is who he is today because his breeding and his genes and his god have arranged him to be through a serious of immutable laws against which only a fool or The Help would presume to argue. He is what his golden life has made him to be, and his golden life was only the bare minimum of that to which god and nature entitled him. To ask him to doubt any of this is to ask him to doubt gravity or the movement of the tides. [/quote]
Of last night, Pierce wrote:
[quote]But the real conclusion as regards the actual election that may have happened is that the rising Romney momentum was blunted. The one thing nobody can ever say now is that they didn’t know the exact character of Willard Romney, and exactly how he feels about The Help, including that member of The Help who currently holds the job that Romney believes should have been his by virtue of his god-kissed, golden life. [/quote]
Mitt Romney has conducted his entire campaign as if the presidency were his birthright, refusing to level with voters about what exactly he would do as president and treating with contempt anyone who would question his qualifications. During the first debate, President Obama failed to challenge Romney in a way that would draw out the flaws either of his platform or his character, handing Romney a win in front of the biggest audience of the campaign to date and allowing Romney to close the gap in the polls. Last night was different. Whether it moves the polls back in President Obama’s direction remains to be seen, but President Obama passed the most important test of the debate, while Mitt Romney failed it. Not just in title, but in substance and in behavior, Barack Obama was the president.