As the debates begin, the rhetoric wanes

With both candidates almost neck and neck only one month away from the 2012 presidential election, the televised debate between Obama and Romney on Wednesday was supposed to be a loyalty-swinger. Yet instead of having an aggressive face-off over issues such as the economy and health-care, the two rivals took it in turns to politely explain their plans for the future of the USA, leaving you wondering whether they realised what was at stake. Perhaps the plan was to appear to be ‘nice guys’, but it gave the impression that they just didn’t want to be there. It was also hard to gauge who ‘won’; after an hour and a half you were still waiting for the knock-out blow. At times Romney casually dropped in a criticism of Obama’s term so far, especially concerning unemployment; his comment that Obama should have been focusing on getting people back to work instead of wasting time on ‘Obama-care’ was perhaps the most heated one of the night. Between shuffling papers, smiling humbly and even being self-deprecating (“Four years ago, I promised that I wasn’t a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president, and that’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept”), there was little sign of that uniquely Obama-style of speech-making that won him the presidency four years ago; instead he looked out of his comfort zone and even slightly embarrassed.

It was a far cry from the confrontational style of debate us Brits are used to seeing at Prime Minister’s Question Time, where each side is fighting, cheeks red and foreheads sweating, to score any points they can, whether based on policy, party or personal digs at their opposition. I’m usually the first to argue that British politics is too aggressive; that debate should be more of a helpful dialogue with some constructive criticism, rather than a testosterone-driven scrap in the playground of Westminster. But I couldn’t help thinking, watching the presidential debate, that at least British politicians get their teeth into it; it doesn’t sound, when you watch them debate, as if they’ve been ruthlessly prepped by a speech-writer and debating coach. Romney’s puppy-dog eyes at the camera and mellowed tone of voice screamed ‘technique’; rather unsurprisingly, it felt  fake. Yet I expected this from the buttoned-up, plastic-looking Republican. I didn’t expect it from Obama. Some slightly sheepish Democrats afterwards tried to blame the outcome of the debate (Romney far outdid Obama in a CNN poll that night) on the president’s busy schedule, and the fact that Romney had much more time to practise ‘debating’ compared to Obama.

Yet the problem was not so much technique as energy. The reason why Obama was elected in 2008 was not because he could put McCain to shame with his rhetoric (indeed, this would not be difficult), but it was his obvious concern for the average American and his passion for reforming aspects of American government with which he was dissatisfied. He was a new voice, and one which resonated with people who had become disaffected by the white and middle-class presidential mould. Obama is a crowd-pleaser like no other but on Wednesday he left them flat, whilst Romney looked authoritative. The issue is not necessarily that Obama doesn’t care about his policies, but that he doesn’t care about justifying himself to his Republican rival. Whilst a British prime minister must gain enough votes in the whole of Parliament to push his initiatives through, an American president needs only the support of the people to be directly elected. The debate on Wednesday may not have been understood, or even watched, by a majority of Americans, and that is why I think Obama seemed half-hearted; he is, first and foremost, a man who speaks to the people in a language they understand and to which they can relate; not one who attacks his contenders. That’s why I think we can forgive him for this one under-performance.

Photo/Barack Obama