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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses