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.

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.