Cheer up Obama! You’ll need a smile to win the next one

Americans respond well to enthusiasm. Obama needs to pull on his charisma to take Romney down in the next debate.

He began by wishing his wife happy anniversary. But I can’t quite remember ever seeing a man look so sombre after 20 years of matrimonial bliss with a babe like Michelle.

The general consensus after yesterday’s first Presidential debate is that incumbent Barack flunked the exam. But peer inside the 90 minute Q&A and you’ll notice that, blow-for-blow, neither candidate’s rhetoric soared above the others. It was all in the attitude. Romney came out swinging. Obama looked downhearted from the get-go. American politics are a language of optimism, of warm cuddly promises that our best intentions will readily materialized when mixed with that magic ingredient: self belief. Without a good grin and the occasional belly laugh, it all looks a bit too glum. Obama, flush on resolve but dry on charisma, seemed to have forgotten that.

Mitt Romney, however, pulled out the big guns. ““Anne was at a rally in Denver yesterday,” he began.

“A woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said Anne, my husband has had four part time jobs in three years. He lost his most recent job, and we’ve now just lost our home. Can ya help us?

And the answer is yes.

We can help.”

Come the rebuttal, Obama sighed like a man who just might not believe it anymore. No doubt four years of congressional scruples, an unfinished war and Republican filibustering against his carefully laid Obamacare plans have eroded away at his shiny new “hope” like cheap fizzy soda corrodes a young tooth.

Most thrive in opposition. As Miliband is earnestness to Cameron’s smarm, so was Obama a beacon of integrity when pitted against a blubbering mountain of whitewashed Republican insincerity in 2008. Turn back to the first Presidential debates just four years ago: John McCain resembles a hoarding grandpa when set next to the vivacious intensity of this fresh-faced senator.

Now Mitt’s the man with the new do – a charming smirk, Republican red tie and star-spangled lapel pin; he’s a picture of cheery self confidence hot off the campaign trail.

A rational mind tells us it’s better to trust experience. Obama’s is the careworn face and greying hair of a man who's spent four years in the bucket, who's seen the bottom and knows what must be done to climb his way out. He delivered the facts with deadpan sincerity:

“I walked into the Oval office with a trillion dollar debt. And we know where it came from. Two wars paid for on a credit card, two tax cuts that were not paid for, and then a massive economic crisis”.

“Romney wants to lower the deficit by closing loopholes and deductions,” he added as the debate turned to balancing the budget. “But when you add up all the deductions and loopholes that upper income families are currently taking advantage of and you take those all away, you don’t come close to paying for 5 trillion in tax cuts and 2 trillion in additional military spending he’s proposing.”

Higher taxes in the face of huge deficit is a reality the Brits have swallowed, but oh how bitter that medicine tastes to Americans when held up against the sweet birdsong of tax cuts and some shiny new toys for the military. Obama’s fervent hand gestures and furrowed brow say it all. He sounds like a man pleading for reason, while Romney rides his high horse into the sunset of bold ideas.

“How am I going to cut public spending?” Romney bellowed.

“I’m going to eliminate all programs that don’t pass this simple test. Is it worth borrowing from China to pay for it? Obamacare would be on my list, I’m sorry to say. I would stop the subsidy to PBS. Sorry, I like big bird, but I’m not going to borrow from China to pay for it. ”

And on the subject of healthcare, Obama should have had it in the bag. Romney was big on Obamacare slander but scarce on details for his proposed replacement. As the President put it:

“The problem is Governor Romney hasn’t described exactly what he would replace Obamacare with beyond saying we’re gonna leave it to the states. The fact of the matter is that some of the prescriptions he’s offered, like buying insurance across state lines, show no indication that someone who’s got a pre-existing condition would be able to keep their health care. You’re looking at 50 million people losing their health care at a time when it’s vitally important."

It’s a fair point, and should have been the President’s final blow; a deciding stab delivered straight through the chink in the armour. Instead he delivered it like a piece of stale bread, an unremarkable factoid amongst a string of dismal truths. Didn’t we tune in to watch Obama throwing political javelins with the zeal of a Scottish highlander taking down narrow-minded invaders? The key word here is debate. Obama made it look more like a poorly attended economics lecture at one of the struggling community colleges he so often talks of mending.

America is a sucker for toothy grins and hearty personas – it’s true. Just look at Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2003 booted out the Democratic California governor Gray Davis midterm with naught much more than a winning smile. His campaign against Davis - whose popularity nosedived after California’s budget deficit topped $36bn – was flighty on specifies, at one point described as “astute in not promising very much of anything”.

Even amidst allegation of sexual harassment on film sets and a light-weight political past, it was blind zeal (“Together we can make this the greatest state in the greatest country in the world" is a line from his acceptance speech) that pulled him through to the end.  It’s shudder-worthy to think what even a tarnished Romney could achieve should Obama fail to keep his spirits up. 

Fact and figures aside, when it comes to debates the American people respond to enthusiasm. It’s what got Obama here in the first place. Both candidates presented arguments sound and flawed in equal measure, but its Romney who took home the award for best effort. If Obama wants to wield the battle ax in future debates, he’ll need to flash those pearly whites a little more often.

Obama looking weary at the 2012 Presidential debate in Denver, CO. Photograph: Getty Images

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war