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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.