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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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.